When will Sania Mirza be given the break she deserves?
India’s best-ever women’s tennis player has had to fight innumerable off-court battles
Somewhere, between riding on waves of political correctness and lashing out at morons who persist with religious ridiculousness, is the real Sania Mirza. We can see these two extremes quite clearly on her Twitter account, which is a medium for her to fight unnecessary battles rather than being a mere social occupation, considering the levels of dangerous inanity she has been dealing with. One day, words hit at the root of her Indianness and call her “Pakistan’s daughter-in-law”, while the very next breath demands she uphold her position as a role model for Indian children. It could overwhelm the strongest among us.
While brickbats batter all celebrities who receive their fair share of bouquets, the extremes of vilification and jingoism that Mirza has had to deal with can perhaps be topped only by those other humans from whom we expect godly things: our country’s cricketers. No matter what major tournament she wins in doubles (the 2015 US Open doubles title being the latest), she has to deal with criticism and caustic comments about the inferiority of the doubles game, as if she alone is responsible for its invention and proliferation.
As with many of her achievements, the Wimbledon title she won with Martina Hingis in June was another first for a nation that had virtually no bars to raise in women’s tennis before Mirza came into the picture, all nose rings and slogan-embossed T-shirts and teen attitude. For the duration of her entire singles career, from 2003-2013, no other Indian woman player has come close to her range of milestones, and future prospects waver between being bleak and nonexistent.
Mirza was the first Indian to win a singles WTA title with the Hyderabad Open in 2005, the same year in which she became the first Indian woman to reach the fourth round of a Grand Slam in singles play. That year ended with her being named WTA Newcomer of the Year and spurred furious debates all around the country about just how far she could go. Nothing of the sort had been achieved by an Indian in the slam-bang fizz-pop of singles tennis, and many were hopeful it was the start of bringing more than just doubles Slams to the table.
At the first Slam that followed her stellar year, the 2006 Australian Open, Sania became the first Indian to be seeded in a major. During 2006, her wins against established top-10 players Svetlana Kuznetsova, Nadia Petrova and Martina Hingis kept the tennis grapevine buzzing and the hope-filled flames ignited. She ended 2007 with the No. 27 singles rank, largely due to a trailblazing US Open that provided the sparkles among the less memorable second- or third-round exits.
Alongside her famous forehand, which got her to the big stage, Sania was competing in a parallel league against disruptive elements. Months after her first title in 2005, religious groups objected to her tennis attire, and a cleric demanded she wear long tunics that covered her arms and legs. Her comments on safe sex at a conference the same year led to yet more voices being raised against her and, ironically, the role model for youngsters was branded a corruptive influence.
These were followed by allegations of her disrespecting the Indian flag, and that was the last straw. Bearing injuries to her right wrist and her pride, Mirza declared that she would not be playing in India again. She dealt with the former by undergoing surgery after the 2008 Beijing Games, but the bruises inflicted on the latter were not going to go away so easily. She pulled herself together at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, however, winning silver in the singles, and at the Asian Games, ending with a bronze.
When the recurring injuries inevitably led to her specialisation in doubles, a lower-profile category than singles, the high-octane insults continued. Among these was her shabby treatment by the country’s own national tennis association, whom she accused of using her as “bait” in one of those far-too-frequent squabbles between Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, this one before the 2012 London Olympics.
The “Pakistan’s daughter-in-law” comment that followed in 2014, after she was appointed brand ambassador for Telangana, forced her to speak out yet again in a tear-filled interview on TV. All this while, her doubles star was shooting up, regardless of her off-court problems. She rose rapidly up the numbers, and each top 10 and top 5 entry was tracked here in India, reaching a crescendo when she struck off another bit of uncharted territory for the country’s tennis records: the No 1 ranking in women’s doubles.
Right now, though, it’s celebration time, with the US Open title in her kitty. After her Wimbledon victory, Mirza said “I returned to Hyderabad at 3 AM after the win. I thought there would be a few people at the airport, but I was surprised. There was a huge crowd and so many celebrations.” We, as a nation, have appropriated her pride, her joy, her satisfaction without a second thought, and she smiles along, happy to live in the moment. Perhaps, from now on, she will need to fight only tennis battles and be able to leave the rest behind.