On Wednesday, January 19, India’s greatest woman tennis player, Sania Mirza, that this year would be her last on the professional circuit after losing the first round of women’s doubles with her Ukrainian partner, Nadiia Kichenok, at the Australian Open.
“I’ve decided this will be my last season,” Times of India reporter Prajwal Hegde . “I’m taking it week by week. Not sure if I can last the season, but I want to.”
The news came as a shock to many, but it isn’t too outrageous an announcement for a 35-year-old tennis player.
Mirza has been a torchbearer of Indian tennis for more than two decades. I have been following her career since I was 12, when she reached the third round of women’s singles at the 2005 Australian Open. That run by Mirza was unprecedented for an Indian woman tennis player. She lost to the eventual champion (and arguably the greatest tennis player of all time) Serena Williams, but created a new legacy for herself and Indian sportswomen.
Mirza was India’s lone woman sportstar in the post PT Usha and pre Nehwal-Sindhu era. Later, in 2005, she also reached the fourth round of the US Open – her deepest run in singles. She, along with Switzerland’s Roger Federer and Spain’s Rafael Nadal, who attained far and wide popularity in the same period, are the reasons many Indians of my generation fell in love with tennis as a sport. I am proud to say she was the reason I picked up a racquet and started playing tennis. I’m sure I can find thousands of people in India who would say the same.
Mirza is the most successful Indian women’s tennis player in singles, being India’s numero uno from 2003 to 2013 with the highest ranking of world No. 27 achieved in 2007. Still, her most significant on-court victories were achieved in doubles, in which she became world No. 1 and won six majors – three each in women’s doubles and mixed doubles.
Mirza, who was born in Mumbai and grew up in Hyderabad, is a superstar in India, often appearing on magazine covers. She appeared on the in 2005 and was also named among the by the same magazine in 2016.
In a tribute to her for Time, Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar wrote, “The Mirzas probably knew what the future held for their daughter. Her name, Sania, means brilliant...Sania's confidence, strength and resilience reach beyond tennis. She has inspired a generation of Indians to pursue their dreams – and to realise that they can also be the best.”
But beyond this praise is a dark corner of India’s ultra-nationalism in which Mirza has often been asked to prove her patriotism. Why? She’s a Muslim in a Hindu majority country and is married to a cricketer from Pakistan – India’s geopolitical adversary. It always angered me and many other Mirza fans when people criticised her over such personal topics: her faith and her marriage. The worst came when a teary-eyed Mirza had to to discuss the need to assert her Indianness to the public.
Mirza usually doesn’t let such negativity affect her. The best way she gets her trolls to shut up is by representing the tricolour at multi-sport events like the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games, where she picked up eight and two medals, respectively. Her achievements on the WTA Tour also add to India’s glory.
But I must say these controversies are not new to her. Mirza has faced unnecessary difficulties with a brave face, all through her career, whether it’s the “controversy” of or being in the Paes-Bhupathi rivalry. The list of controversies is long, through no fault of hers, but her list of triumphs is longer.
As a teenager, I fanboyed over her confidence and her beauty. As an adult, I respect what she stands for. Being a Muslim and being a woman are not easy in India. A combination of the two is even more challenging. But Mirza has also always handled these storms with unbelievable grace. Her success gives hope to the underrepresented in India. That she could not just survive but thrive in 21st century India is powerful. That’s what she means.
Whatever happens in the rest of 2022, Mirza has cemented her legacy for life. I will be watching and cheering her for every match left in her. I hope you will join me in celebrating our biggest tennis star.
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