In a country where cricketers dominate headlines, women from outside Bollywood struggle to make it to fame, a girl from Hyderabad shot to limelight and changed the perception of how her sport and women athletes are viewed in general. Sania Mirza, the phenomenon, rumbled on to headlines with her great tennis and her charming personality. Before Mirza, tennis was a minor sport in India. Sure, Vijay Amirtraj’s success, the dynamic duo of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupati were popular. But Mirza was different, Mirza was box office.
After capturing her first WTA singles title in her hometown of Hyderabad, much was expected of Sania Mirza. She broke into the top 50 of the women’s rankings making her the first Indian woman to do so. When she had a dream run to the fourth round of the US Open, India dared to dream. Mirza was just four matches away the first singles grandslam champion from the country and was faced with another upcoming talent – a certain Maria Sharapova. Unfortunately, the occasion got to Mirza and she wasn’t at her best as she lost to the enigmatic Russian.
In the country of bollywood supermodels, Mirza also shot to fame because of her looks and consequent commercial ventures. Mirza’s dressing on court created needless vulgar jokes and controversies with fatwas being issued against the star. Being the champion she is, she put all this aside and represented India with pride. In the Doha Asian games, she paired up with the legendary Paes and the duo won gold in the mixed doubles event. It was evident that Mirza was an amazing doubles player.
The pinnacle of Mirza’s career was perhaps when she was given a seed for the 2007 Australian Open. She was the first ever Indian woman to get seeded for a grandslam event – another addition to a long list of firsts. Though she had a disappointing tournament, it was not to be forgotten that Mirza was simply an absolute role model for any aspiring Indian athlete.
Unfortunately though, injuries struck the rising star. A troublesome wrist injury refused to go away and when the wrists stop working at a hundred per cent, it is very hard to make it as a singles player. A hastily arranged marriage which was later called off also lead to personal turmoil as she was seen more often in the gossip column than the sports one in the newspapers. Mirza’s fall was so dramatic that she was ranked 141 at the beginning of 2011 (having been ranked no. 27 only three years earlier). Mirza, then decided to remodel her career and focus on doubles. Being the perfectionist she is, she went through a host of partners before finding the right chemistry with turbulent former world number one, Martina Hingis.
The pair is currently ranked as world number one in women’s doubles. For someone who thought her career to be done and dusted, it must have been refreshing to be back in the news for all the right reasons. Mirza’s focus on tennis remains quite unwavered through all the controversies that she has faced. Her loyalty to the country, her dressing sense etc have all been questioned at various points and she has even been publicly reduced to tears (due to an insensitive politician calling her “Pakistan’s daughter-in-law”) but she has always pulled through and just remained focused on her career.
The list of “Sania Mirza is the first Indian woman to….” remains endless. She has won so many medals, points and the admiration of so many people. Somewhere in there, the charming girl unburdened by controversies that we first saw all those years ago lurks, waiting to get back on court and hammer her name down into the record books. But she is a veteran now, a veteran whose every move is watched and criticized mercilessly. Her grit to withstand all this and treat it as yet another day in the office is what distinguishes Sania Mirza.
Long after she is gone, she will be the one who cut across all divides and limits for achievements by an Indian woman.