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Sunday, March 7, 2021

A Sydney title at last

Reading Time: 6 minutesIndia’s leading tennis star Sania Mirza talks to Indian Link after her Apia Sydney International doubles win

Sania Mirza is on a high. She has just come off a fantastic win at the Australian Open, with her partner Su-Wei Hsieh of Taiwan, to move into the second round of the women’s doubles event. The second-seed pair took just 48 minutes to defeat Maria Irigoyen of Argentina and Romina Oprandi of Switzerland in straight sets (6-2, 6-0).
But she is the Queen of Cool as she answers questions that Indian Link puts to her, calm and collected in her characteristic manner.

Only days before, she finished off the Apia International Sydney Tennis Tournament with the 23rd title of her career, taking the doubles trophy with her partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the USA. Gaining 470 points, it also pushed her ranking up to No. 5.
“It’s always good to start the year with a title,” Sania tells Indian Link. “Somehow, I didn’t have a great record in Sydney in the past and it is wonderful to straighten that record out with a title!”
(Sania and Bethanie also took out the Brisbane title last year).

The Sydney title must indeed have set her up well for the Australian Open this time around.
“There’s no tonic like a win to boost one’s confidence, but every day is a new day in tennis,” Sania says, matter-of-factly.
The second round will be up against the Canadian-Polish pair of Gabriela Dabrowski and Alicja Rosolska.
The doubles game has seen Sania flourish. Retiring as a singles player in 2013, we’ve seen Sania relax and enjoy it all more, and of course, bring home the hardware to show for it. Is she following in the footsteps of other players from India who have long been seen as doubles specialists, or is it just a boost in natural confidence as she grows into maturity?

“One definitely improves with experience and maturity but competing in singles gave me as much joy as I derive from the game today,” Sania replies, perhaps wistfully.
It was no doubt a hard but pragmatic decision, brought on by recurring injuries, to retire from the singles game, where she reached a No. 27 ranking at the height of her career.
(“In one of my last singles tournaments in 2012, I beat three top 100 players,” Sania said in another interview recently).

Yet she continues to be India’s leading female tennis player, and it’s not likely she’ll lose that position in the foreseeable future.
She lights up as we look back at her career. What, we ask, would she consider the highlight?
“There are many! Winning the Australian, French and US Opens in Mixed, beating Martina Hingis twice and the reigning US Open champion Kuznetsova in Singles, winning a Singles WTA title, bagging 14 medals for India in multi-discipline Games and reaching a career high ranking of 27 in singles and five in Doubles would all rank high in my personal highlight list.”

Sania Mirza makes time for fans in Sydney

Is there a particular match that stands out as extraordinary?
“Beating Kuznetsova 6-4, 6-2 in Dubai after being down 0-4 and with an ankle injury, was one that gave me a lot of satisfaction,” Sania says.
Which tour has she routinely enjoyed?
“I love the atmosphere at Wimbledon, but every Grand Slam has its own unique flavour that is extraordinary. I’ve always loved playing at home as well, and I have some great results to show for this.”
As the only tennis star to be fully trained in India (she was coached by her dad Imran in the early days), Sania is passionate about raising the profile of tennis in her homeland. She launched the Sania Mirza Tennis Academy in 2013 to help identify and develop talented youngsters from across India.

“I have created a world-class facility in my home town of Hyderabad and have provided the trainees with international visiting coaches and trainers to help them develop.
Tennis is a truly global sport and it takes a lot to produce a Grand Slam level player. Talent is a pre-requisite, but it also involves tremendous effort in the right direction from the support team. Through the Sania Mirza Tennis Academy in India, I am trying to give the tennis talent the right guidance and road map to achieve international success,” Sania says. “Hopefully, we should have a few players emerging out of this initiative in a few years’ time. It’s a long, difficult road to produce international level tennis players but if you have the passion for the game, it is possible”.

Rural talent is also encouraged and select players are trained entirely free of charge.
It must make a difference that gradually but surely, there is increasing regard in India for sports other than cricket.
“I think we still have some way to go in this direction!” Sania laughs.
As India’s best known female athlete, the 28-year-old is today probably used to being described with terms such as “icon”, “role model” and “trailblazer”. Other athletes such as boxer MC Mary Kom and badminton star Saina Nehwal may have made a mark as well, but have so far come nowhere close to Sania’s stratospheric status in Indian sport and popular culture.
It also helps that she has a huge social conscience and a propensity to tell it like it is, whether on women’s issues in Indian society or on gender equality. She has been decorated with high government honours such as the Arjuna Award and a Padmashree, and was recently named UN Women Goodwill Ambassador for South Asia. She has 2.29 million Twitter followers and over 8 million Facebook friends, and is currently in the running for the “Indian of the Year” title.
Sania with Lakshmi Puri, Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women

And oh yes, she can give your regular Bollywood personality a run for their money when it comes to the glamour stakes.
The autobiography that she reveals she is currently working on, will almost certainly be lapped up eagerly, and not just for the insights into the controversies that have surrounded her in the ten years that she has been a public figure.
Controversies, and there have been a few, including some created by the media, have followed Sania – her “UnIslamic” attire, supposed “disrespect” to the Indian flag, her disregard of uniform regulations at the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony, the protest against her being named Telangana ambassador, her marriage to Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik (and in recent months, murmurings of trouble in their paradise).
But equally, she has hit back with her own trademark backhand each time – such as telling off tennis officials for using her to entice Leander Paes back into the Olympic team; telling the press to back off during her controversial wedding; even once famously telling actor Shah Rukh Khan, who offered unsolicited advice, that she can look after herself very well, thank you.
There can be no doubt that she impresses with her firebrand personality just as much as with her tennis.
But she, of course, will not agree.
As she puts it herself, it is her tennis that will always define her.

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Rajni Anand Luthra
Rajni Anand Luthra
Rajni is the Editor of Indian Link.

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