Video Producer: Shohini Bose
Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam
For the Indian tennis fraternity, the 20th century could not have ended on a better note. A 1996 Olympic bronze in Atlanta was followed by two Grand Slam wins, as the pair of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupati flew the tricolour high at the Wimbledon and French Open, back in 1999.
Tennis, unlike the most popular sport of the nation that cricket is, might cater more to individual achievements and titles, than a country’s holistic glory. Yet, the success of Paes and Bhupati, followed by the celebratory wave which gripped the nation, ensured that the next century will further establish India’s existence on the international tennis map.
The exciting new wave, however, missed one crucial aspect. India’s tennis establishment would have been left terribly lopsided, the development would have been significantly incomplete, and the emergence would have been eminently lacklustre, had it not been for Sania Mirza.
The nation’s first, and to date, the biggest female icon of the game is a trailblazer, in more aspects than one. Nirupama Mankad did her best to prove that Indian women can excel in the sport, while Nirupama Sanjeev showed that it is possible to compete in the big stages.
Yet, in a country where scepticism is the norm and trust is built only by corroboration, Sania showed that like the men, the girls of the soil were also ready to not merely make up the numbers abroad and constrict their realm to mere participation, but to win the medals the country has been craving for.
And perhaps for this very reason, when it comes to women’s tennis – Sania Mirza is India, and India is Sania Mirza.
How to Break the Ice, and Then Do It Twice
Sania's mission of constructing a gigantic trophy cabinet started in 2002, when she won an Asian Games bronze at only 15 years of age. The achievement, beyond any doubt, was phenomenal, but with an already renowned Peas partnering with her, it should not be too difficult to guess on which side of the pair the lion’s share of the spotlight was inclined towards.
Hence, having already broken the ice, the teenager from Hyderabad had to do it all over again, as she won the girls’ doubles title in Wimbledon 2003, alongside Russia’s Alisa Kleybanova. It sparked the official commencement of greatness which witnessed the creation of a plethora of records.
The first of such records was created in 2004, when Sania became the first woman from India to qualify for the fourth round of a Grand Slam. Over the next couple of years, she conquered everything she had envisaged conquering, and perhaps a bit more.
Fighting the Inevitabilities
The world was at her feet, and it was a world full of triumph and titles that she built with her dedication and perseverance – until all of it was taken away. Still only in the blossoming stage of her career, the ace was dealt with two absolute inevitables.
First off was a sporting inevitability, as despite her exemplary athleticism, injuries eventually managed to halt her spectacular rise, albeit temporarily.
The second happened to be a societal inevitability which, unfortunately, perhaps many female athletes across the country who decided to break the boundaries and preconceived notions, would relate to.
Whilst it was her exquisite skills with the racquet that demanded attention, controversy broke out about the dress she wore, and the advertisements she shot.
Criticism, in its most relentless and lethal form, could shake even the most unyielding of minds, and unsurprisingly, Sania eventually decided to cease fighting by announcing she will not play in any competition in India.
It could well be termed as a decision many would have taken had they been in her shoes, but from the broader perspective, her shoes encompassed every Indian girl who dared to harbour similar ambitions, of beating the best players.
Global Coronation, From the Clutches of Vilification
Despite the consistent vilification, she continued fighting, and the decision eventually bore fruit in 2009, when she became the first Indian woman to win a Grand Slam title – mixed doubles at Australian Open alongside Mahesh Bhupati.
Nearly 14 years since that fateful February day, Sania remains the only Indian woman to have ever got her hands on a Grand Slam title, except that she did not do it just once, but only went again and did it on five more occasions, winning at least one title in all four Grand Slam events.
After a French Open mixed doubles win in 2012, Sania found a new partner in Brazil’s Bruno Soares and won the US Open two years later. Just when it seemed that she had found her forte in that particular category, she defied all hypotheses for the umpteenth time, by winning three women’s doubles Grand Slams in two years – all of them with Switzerland’s Martina Hingis.
Whilst she went on a spree to add more accolades to her tally, official recognition subsequently followed suit as she became the first Indian woman to be ranked world number 1 in WTA’s doubles rankings.
No Deterrents at Dusk
In 2018, nine years after her marriage to Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik, she announced the birth of her son, Izhaan Mirza Malik. It is not completely rare for maternity to be a professional deterrent, but for someone who took the world head-on since the dawn of her career, no challenge at the dusk could prove to be significant enough.
She returned to win a WTA event in Hobart, before also playing in the Olympics.
As Sania called curtains to her Grand Slam career on 27 January 2023, with a defeat in the mixed doubles final at the Australian Open 2023, the Rod Laver Arena did just merely witness the emotional farewell of an icon. It was, without any tinge of exaggeration, the royal conclusion of what will be remembered as the first, and most glorious chapter of a nation’s hot-and-cold tryst with women’s tennis.
For when it comes to women’s tennis – Sania Mirza is India, and India is Sania Mirza.