Two years ago, she took a crucial decision—to play only doubles. and today, the tennis ace has reached her career-best doubles rank of number five.
By Gaurav Kalra
Two missed opportunities still trouble Sania Mirza. Seeded sixth, she and her doubles partner Cara Black of Zim-babwe led the Italian top seeds Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci 4-1 in the final set of the quarterfinals at the Australian Open in January, this year. The match was in their bag. Inexplicably, Mirza and Black dropped their guard. Errani and Vinci reeled off five games to win the set 6-4, match, and finally the Grand Slam title.
A few months later, on the red clay court in the French Open, Mirza and Black met the Chinese pair of Su-Wei Hsieh and Shuai Peng in another quarterfinal match. And lost another three-setter; this time too, Hsieh and Peng went on to win the women doubles’ Grand Slam title.
While these two defeats still rankle her, Mirza is not too perturbed with her performance in 2014. She and Black have won doubles titles in Estoril, Portugal, and reached the finals of three other events at Indian Wells, Stuttgart and Montreal since the start of the year. And a career-best doubles ranking of number five is something to feel happy about.
“This success goes back to the time I decided to give up singles and switched to playing only women and mixed doubles. I thought my body couldn’t take the gruel of singles. At that point, I wasn’t sure if it was the right decision or not but the subsequent success implies that it was,” explains the tennis star.
Mirza decided to focus on doubles in the middle of 2012 at the age of 25; it was a decision that surprised many. Until then, constant injuries had forced her to undergo three surgeries. She recognized that too much play could prematurely end her career. “I had played singles and doubles, finished seven out of eight years in the top 100, and achieved a lot,” she recounts.
Taking stock of her career graph, Mirza says: “I have no regrets about my singles career. I am only the third person in India to have been in the top 30. Would I have liked to be in the top 20? Of course, as a tennis player you can’t be satisfied. But I can’t call my singles career a disaster because I didn’t make the top 20.”
In 2013, which was her first full season as a doubles player, Mirza broke into the top 10 rankings. But the surge to the top five began in 2014, when she teamed up with Black, a multiple Grand Slam champion. Besides being a calming influence on the court, the 35-year-old Zimbabwean compliments Mirza’s game. “She plays an old school-type game. She serves and volleys, returns and volleys. I play an opposite game (baseline one). I hit big strokes off the ground, and so I can set her up to play winners. This has been one of our strong points. Because we play so differently, it is hard for our opponents to get into a rhythm,” reveals Sania.
Black and Mirza have reached the quarterfinals of all the events the duo played this year, except Wimbledon, where they lost in the second round. “Black took a break to have a baby, so she’s in a different stage of her life. She has been around longer than I have, so it’s great to have her on my side,” says Mirza.
Although Mirza is yet to win women doubles Grand Slam title, she has won two mixed doubles Grand Slam titles. She reached the finals of the 2011 French Open women doubles, but lost. “Cara and I are one of the best teams. Our results show we are close to winning a Grand Slam; it will be great to win one,” says Mirza, who is competing at the US Open.
A symbol for women’s sport. Mirza seems to be the lone Indian woman in global tennis. Despite her accomplishments over the last decade, no other woman has created as much as a minor ripple on the world circuit. Mirza blames the “system” and explains that the tennis players, who have succeeded, have done it despite the system and through their own efforts “with help from parents.”
Thanks to the tennis academy she runs in Hyderabad, Mirza understands the problems. “Physically, tennis has changed in the last 5-6 years and that’s one of the reasons we don’t get players from here. We work on our fitness when we are 14-15 years old, and we are always playing the catch-up game. Children in Europe and America work on the physical aspect from the time they are six years old,” she says.
India’s tennis icon bemoans the fact that the interest generated by her success seems to have dissipated. “Today, there are 60-70 kids playing with me, but they do the wrong things and don’t understand the dedication that is needed.” But at the same time, Mirza is pleased that many Indian sportswomen have made an impression on the world stage in the recent years. “Even as a 15-16-year old, I hoped some girls would pick up a sport and do what they love. I hope I have been able to inspire some to believe they can be professional athletes. They don’t have to be a teacher or a doctor or something that is socially more acceptable.”
Mirza has always grabbed headlines for all the wrong reasons. She remembers with amusement the outrage sparked off by fundamentalist elements over the T-shirts she wore. “It was silly and I had to learn how to deal with it. I was 17. When most girls deal with how to bunk classes in college, I dealt with people questioning me for everything. It was hard and my support system of parents, family and friends was good,” she says.
Though 27, Mirza hasn’t lost her verve or zest. She is older, mature but still vivacious like the precocious teenager who first burst onto the tennis scene. “You have to enjoy the struggle, pain, torn muscles. If you don’t, it’s not worth it. In India and Asia, we have a social view of what a girl should do. It’s not about fighting this mindset, but being who you are.”