A keen student while in school, Sania Mirza had a difficult time choosing between medicine and tennis. Finally, when she did make that decision, there was no looking back. Taking on the world as a doubles player today, Sania declares that three surgeries and a marriage later, she could have easily retired into an easy life, but that would have been a betrayal to herself and to her love for the game. For the last eight years, she doesn’t remember a single morning when she has woken up without a pain, but the fighter is far away from giving up.
GJ: How has your journey been different from your less successful peers?
SM: I think a lot of things go into becoming a tennis player. We had no woman from this country in the big league. I was lucky to become as successful as I am today. I loved playing. I love the sport, and I love working hard. My body doesn’t feel that it’s 26 years old, my body feels that it is 40 because of the surgeries and the injuries I have put it through. I used to be in the gym for seven to eight hours a day, after which I would come home and do home work. I’d try to sit for exams; I did normal schooling up to the twelfth grade. I finished my schooling, did my boards and everything and then I joined university. I majored in Psychology for a year and then I had to choose between Wimbledon and giving my exams. I chose Wimbledon, and after that there was no looking back. Going to Wimbledon was a dream come true.
GJ: Do you think entering the tennis domain was a gamble for you?
SM: I think it’s a gamble for everyone.There isn’t much money in tennis, and not everyone can raise the amount needed in order to be successful. You have to be very lucky to have that. When you are playing the juniors you don’t make any money, but you travel about 30 weeks a year and spend around Rs 50-60 lakhs in that time. When you play in junior Wimbledon, you don’t make anything. It’s obviously a world sport in which almost 200 countries play. So you have to travel to very far off places. Therefore, you invest a lot of money without any guarantee of a return. There are many people who gamble and nothing comes out of it. There were many other girls who played with me, but none of them made it. It’s a calculated gamble you have to take, but you also have to be practical. Fortunately, I did very well right from the start, and that kept us hopeful.
GJ: What kept you going through your early days?
SM: I love tennis, I love competing, the smell of winning. I am generally a competitive person.It’s very easy for me to say that I have fame, I have money, I have a perfect husband, so I could easily not work hard any more. The average tennis career is very short. After three surgeries I could have said that. But I’ve won the Grand Slam this year, proving that I like to fight back hardest when people think that I am out for good. It’s this spirit that kept me going right from the start.
GJ: Can you tell me a little about your childhood?
SM: My parents were not very pushy, though they did want me to play at the highest levels. I loved school and I was very good at my schoolwork. I didn’t want to miss school or matches—that was the biggest conflict I faced in those days.At one point, I wanted to be a doctor, so one of the biggest decisions I made was to miss school in order to pursue tennis, thus giving up on that dream. I was always the one who wanted to go practice, and it helps to know that this career was entirely my own decision.
GJ: How do you manage to project such a true-to-life image, even before the media?
SM: I think a lot of sportspersons stay very true to their nature because it’s very difficult to hide your true self in a competitive arena. I feel that the tennis court is a place where I am completely myself. I don’t care how I look or behave. We all talk to ourselves and its considered normal on the tennis court. I think your true self comes out when you are competing.
GJ: How is Sania on the tennis court compared to the Sania at an exhibition or gallery opening?
SM: When I am on the tennis court, I don’t hold back in terms of how I behave. If I am at an exhibition or gallery opening I will not be talking to myself. There are so many emotions involved in a two hour tennis match. There’s frustration, happiness, sadness, you miss a ball and you are annoyed, you win a point and you cheer yourself up. There are just so many emotions involved. I am generally a very emotional person; you tend to see me full of emotions on a tennis court. Off the tennis court I hold back those emotions. I am reserved around people I don’t know.
GJ: You’ve said that though you are 26, you think like a 40-year old. What made you say that?
SM: I have friends who are 25 and 26 and still wondering what they want to do with their lives. Here I am, talking about what I want to do as my second career! It’s a very different space that I am in, it’s been a very different life that I have lived. It’s been extremely eventful and full for someone of my age.
GJ: How do you prepare for a tournament?
SM: We travel about 30 weeks a year, so we don’t get much time to ourselves, or to relax. Last year people were asking me whether I was preparing for the Olympics. I would say no because the Australian Open was coming up before that! As tennis players, we prepare on a daily basis.
GJ: What was running through your head when you got that trophy? How did life change after that?
SM: That was 2003. I was in disbelief. After that, all hell broke loose. I suddenlyreceived all this recognition; I seemed to become famous overnight. My dad was here and he would tell me over the phone that the media was not leaving the house and that reporters were parked outside. It was his first experience with them as well. When I came back there were hundreds of people waiting to receive me at the airport. That was my first taste of stardom and I was a little overwhelmed.
GJ: Was that the turning point of your career?
SM: It was a major turning point, in terms of me getting recognition and stardom. But I had played the semifinals of the French Open two weeks before that—again, a first time feat for an Indian woman, but no one talked about it. When I was 12, I won the nationals under-14 and under-16 in Delhi and I got my first sponsorship with Adidas. That’s when I decided that I wanted to be a professional tennis player. In my head, that was the turning point.
GJ: What were the biggest crises that you experienced professionally?
SM: Every time I have been hurt, I have faced a crisis. People don’t realise that when you are hurt, it’s a lot easier to heal physically than it is emotionally. As tennis players or as athletes you have to learn to trust your body again. The first major injury that I had was my knee; I tore it when I was among the top 30 in the world. I was in Doha, I played my match, I hurt my knee, but I continued and won the match. It kept getting worse and the next morning, I couldn’t step out. I almost collapsed trying to go to the bathroom. One day later I was in surgery. It took me three months to come back from that. I remember the feeling of being too scared to move on, not because I was scared for my body but I wasn’t sure whether my knee would give in again.I don’t think people realise how difficult it is to trust your body after something like that. Physically you can work out and become fit again but you need to recover mentally as well. For the last seven to eight years I don’t remember waking up in the morning without pain.
In 2008, when I injured my wrist, I couldn’t comb my hair or pick up a fork or handle simple things like that. I was in serious depression, thinking my career is over. I tried to think of other options, other things I could do, anything to keep from sitting in my room all day and crying. It’s the worst feeling in the world when you have to sacrifice the things you love. It was a horrific feeling. This was during the first Olympics. But I came through that and I won my slam afterwards, in 2009.
GJ: Having an Indian body is a great disadvantage compared to Russian and other western athletes who are much more strongly built. What were the advantages that you were working with?
SM: I have a hyper mobile body which is very flexible. I am double jointed, and this allows me to use my wrist in ways that many others can’t. All my injuries have been joint related, I’ve never had a muscle tear or anything else. This is a major advantage, in my opinion.
GJ: Wasn’t it after 2007 that you said you would never again play on Indian soil?
SM: That was a rumour. I have clarified my stance many times, but people don’t pay attention because that story doesn’t sell as well. All I said was that I was mentally very exhausted that particular week. In 2010, I played the Commonwealth Games in Delhi and won 2 medals. After that, they’ve never had a tournament in India.
GJ: What do you have to say about the Leander-Mahesh controversy?
SM: Mahesh is my closest friend, but the fact is that that at that time he didn’t behave the way he was expected to. I didn’t want to make a big issue of what had happened, but the fact is, I don’t like being taken for granted. If I am taken for granted you will hear from me—and that’s what happened. I won a Grand Slam with a person I was playing the whole year with two weeks prior to the controversy, but no one called to congratulate me. Rohan got a phone call to ask whom he wanted to play with, Mahesh and Leander got phone calls and the funny thing was that they wanted the medal only from the mixed doubles which I was playing and no one even called me to ask me. My problem was not with who I was playing with; it was the way it was being handled. My commitment was not to a person but the country and I made that clear.
GJ: Did this affect the way in which you played the Olympics?
SM: I think we were all very disturbed but I don’t think we can blame anything on that, really. As tennis players and professionals we are supposed to block it out. I know it sounds harsh but that’s how we are supposed to be. I pray that I don’t see any other sport go through the things that our sport went through. It showed tennis in such poor light, especially at a time when the prestige tennis was growing in the country.
GJ: Do you think glass ceilings still exist in the sports fraternity in India?
SM: At that time, they most definitely did. Now I’m not so sure.
GJ: You’ve played against the world’s number ones. What was it like to win against them?
SM: It taught me to believe that everyone is beatable. I played Hingis in Kolkata for the first time and we played the semi finals before a packed house of 18000 people. She played an outstanding match. I came off of the court, knowing there was nothing I could have done differently. But three days later, we went to Korea where I beat her. Six months later, we played in America and I won again. She retired two months after that. You can’t be judged over one or two matches. I am in my ninth year now; I have finished seven out of eight years among the top 100 in the world. That’s what I should to be judged on.
GJ: How has being a celebrity changed you?
SM: If I were not a celebrity, I think I would behave the exact same way I am behaving today. Maybe that works against me. A lot of people change when they become celebrities, but I still go to a coffee shop and hang out with my friends, just as I did in school. I am not going to change that. I have always been true to myself and my family and I don’t ever want to be any other way.
GJ: What made you decide to get married so early?
SM: I have been in the limelight for ten years now. I grew up in the limelight and people have seen me grow from a chubby girl whose face was full of pimples to what I am now. So there was never really a timeline in my head. Maybe it’s a cliché to say this, but I felt it was the right time and I have no regrets now.
GJ: How has marriage changed you as a professional?
SM: The fact that I am married to someone who plays sport at the elite level and who understands the pressures that go with it really helps both of us. When you lose a match you don’t have to explain things to the other person. They know that they just need to back off and stay away for a couple of hours and after that, things are going to be fine. We met, we fell in love and we wanted to spend our lives together and it was really as simple as that. People used to ask me whether I considered the fact that he was from Pakistan. It never struck me or him that we were from countries that didn’t get along. That was not just how we were brought up.
I wanted to stop playing when I was 24. I felt that the moment I wake up in the morning and don’t feel like going to the gym or practicing, I will know it’s time to say I am done. I thought that after 24, I would want to have a normal life, go out with my friends. But things changed, and today I am almost 26 and I still want to play. I thought I wouldn’t want to play after I got married but it’s been nearly three years now and I still want to play. I think with time your thought process changes a lot.
GJ: What do you think sets you apart from other couples?
SM: I don’t know how other couples behave together. Actually, I am a very simple person and so is he. When we are outside, we are always conscious of ourselves, of how we look because you know someone is always watching. So when we are alone, or at home, we just like to be very simple. Neither of us is huge on partying; we are happy to stay at home and watch a movie. We don’t drink or smoke so that kind of helps as well.
GJ: How do you manage your schedules?
SM: That is probably the toughest part of being together. My traveling has increased because of him; when I don’t travel for myself I travel with him. It’s a lot easier for me to accompany him as mine is an individual sport, I can pick and choose my own schedule. But his is a team sport, which means he gets little choice in where and when he goes. When I don’t travel for myself I join him, so I am hardly at home.
GJ: How do you handle your career and your marriage simultaneously?
SM: We just go with the flow; we are both pretty easy going. I think in a marriage like we have, we have to be, because if we are not then we will start having issues because our schedules are always haywire. We never know what’s going to happen and if we are not relaxed about it, we’ll have a fight almost every other day.
GJ: What do you like the most about Shoaib?
SM: He is extremely patient. If we have fights, nine out of ten of them are started by me, and he barely argues. This has helped me calm down.
GJ: You are a very religious person, aren’t you?
SM: I am a believer, I pray, I do the basic stuff. People seem to think that if you are Muslim you have to be perfectly religious; you can’t be a Muslim and do namaaz and still play tennis and pay attention to your looks. They don’t understand that you can balance both.
GJ: How did it affect you emotionally when the fatwa was released against you?
SM: A lot of that furor was media-driven. As a Muslim, if you ask me if I am allowed to wear short skirts and play and I would say I am not, but just because I do, does that mean I am not a Muslim? No, it doesn’t mean that. Maybe I am not doing exactly what the Quran says I should, but I do follow the basic rules. I fast, I pray, I follow the most important tenets of Islam.
In this part of the world, people are very quick to point fingers at others, regardless of what they are doing or not doing. The media makes of our statements what it will, conveniently ignoring our clarifications. That’s whyI am writing a book, so that people hear what I have to say about my own life, for once.
GJ: How do you feel about your amazing success?
SM: It feels great to be so honoured and appreciated. I didn’t aim at it, really; stardom was not something I was ever enticed by. I loved the sport, and I wasn’t playing tennis to become a star.
GJ: Is it true that you are starting an academy?
SM: Yes, the plans are underway to open one in Hyderabad. One of our main goals is to try and get kids from rural areas because people have this misconception that tennis is only for the elite, like golf. When I started playing tennis, I used to pay 500 rupees for a month of training. I think most people can afford 500 rupees. If you want to play at the level that I have played you might need sponsors, but that is the case for most sports.
GJ: What would your role be in the academy?
SM: I would love to help the kids out whenever I am around. We have already hired coaches who have been top Indian tennis players and we are trying to get more on board. My dad’s going to be there almost full time. We will try and have international coaches and players at the academy every month. They can share their experiences, educated people here on what it takes to make it big in the tennis world.
GJ: What is sportsmanship to you?
SM: I think sportsmanship is about giving everything for that win but in a fair way. You shouldn’t be afraid to win or lose, as long as you do it on a fair basis.
GJ: Where do you see yourself ten years from now?
SM: I’d definitely want to have a family.
GJ: What do you see as your biggest contribution to the Indian sports fraternity?
SM: I think the academy is the biggest contribution that I am going to make. I don’t have the support from the government—it’s all my own investment, including the land. I am going to make this dream come true on my own.