Bubbling exuberance and effervescent charisma – these were the common traits among the quartet who had stepped foot in London, back in 2003.
Beyond the evident attributes, however, there were a few other uniting factors – all of them were in their formative, teenage years, and were regarded as the next big things in the Indian tennis circuit.
Sania Mirza, Somdev Devvarman, Karan Rastogi and Sanaa Bhambri were about to compete in the biggest event of their blossoming careers – in the juniors category of the Wimbledon Championships.
‘Compete’ can be highlighted as the keyword, for it was the first, and solitary agenda for most, as just to make it to the sport’s holy grail, even in isolation, should be regarded as a splendid achievement.
Yet, one among the quartet had other plans. Whilst the others were eliminated in the first round, the girl from Hyderabad made it to the quarter-final. And then, to the semi-final. And then, to the final. And then, she won.
At only 16 years of age, Sania Mirza was a title winner in tennis’ grandest stage, winning the girls’ doubles with Alisa Kleybanova. Her compatriots, whilst being downright awe-struck, had come to a unanimous inference – absolutely nothing would stop the girl from scripting history for India.
As Sania played her last tennis match at the Dubai Tennis Championships, drawing curtains to an illustrious career that spanned over two decades and earned a plethora of accolades, including six Grand Slams, Somdev, her childhood friend and former tennis ace, reminisces the 2003 trip to London, recollecting how she first rose to fame.
“I will be completely honest with you here – absolutely none of us thought we had a chance of going deep into the tournament, let alone win. But while we were knocked out soon, Sania kept going,” the 38-year-old shares, in an exclusive interview with The Quint.
“Next thing you know, she is in the final. After she won it, Sania was at the Wimbledon ball alongside some of the greatest tennis players of all time – Roger Federer, Serena Williams and others. Even at that young age, she was not overawed by the occasion. It so felt that she belonged to that stage, amid the superstars, and we knew there was no stopping her,” Somdev adds, with his elation making his pride evident. Pride, of the girl he had met 26 years ago.
The Ability To Fight Back Defines Sania Mirza
Looking back at Sania’s career, the Padma Shri awardee says “What she has achieved in this sport is incredible, for she has put India on the map of women’s tennis globally. Undoubtedly, the greatest female tennis player India has ever had.”
An Asian Games medal, a Wimbledon title and a WTA title – all by the age of 17 – helped her make headlines.
Unfortunately, not every headline made the right noise. Amid her numerous triumphs, her kits became a raging topic of discussion, even forcing Sania to announce her intention of never playing in India.
"She has had to deal with problems that no other upcoming tennis player from India had faced. But Sania is a trailblazer – one who always handled every situation in the best possible way, and kept her critics quiet with her success on the tennis court," Somdev informs us.
Barring controversies off the court, which were aplenty and often unbearable, Sania also had to deal with multiple injuries, hindering her steady ascend to the pinnacle.
Somdev, albeit, is of the opinion that continually fighting challenges and still coming out on top is what his childhood buddy is all about.
"Facing so many injuries and making a successful comeback every time is a testament to her willpower and determination. And this is also what defines Sania – the ability to fight back when the chips are down. It started off with a wrist injury, then she had knee problems, then took a maternity break, but she came back every time and found a way to get back to the top," he says.
A Trendsetter, Across All Domains
“Apart from the strokes, forehands and putting herself in the right positions, it is her personality that shines bright every time she is playing. That tells you everything you need to know about the person that Sania is,” the Commonwealth Games gold medallist states.
While her major accolades have been in doubles, Somdev reminds us about her unparalleled achievement in singles – an aspect not documented in extensive detail.
“We talk about what she has done in doubles, but people forget she was once among the top 30 in singles as well. For someone to come from India and achieve that, it was phenomenal. No one had done it before Sania.”
‘Matter of Time Before Sania Feels Hungry Again'
Now that she is retired, what would his advice be to Sania?
“As a friend, I would first ask her to take a break. If there’s anyone who deserves to spend time with family, after working so incredibly hard, it is Sania,” he says, with a beaming smile.
In a split second, however, he remembers how Sania is not particularly a take-a-break kind.
But then again, I know she is one of the most ambitious athletes and it is only a matter of time before she feels hungry again, where she has an idea and can’t wait to put it into motion.Somdev Devvarman
A Career That Transcended Tennis
As the interview draws to a close, Somdev further expresses his confidence in Sania doing more great things for the nation.
"Her heart is in the right place. Her intention is always to see the growth of tennis in India, and the success of upcoming players. She has always been a leader, and I am one hundred per cent sure that she will do great things for the country," he says.
For now, however, he has all but one appeal to the Indian tennis enthusiasts and budding athletes – not to narrow Sania’s career down to her medals and trophies, which are bountiful in themselves, but to seek erudition by studying her career.
“Sania is a huge success in terms of the Indian tennis fraternity, but honestly, she transcends tennis. Anyone who looks at her life and studies her career, will be able to take away key learnings about how to deal with problems and always put the right foot forward,” Somdev concludes.