Sania Mirza’s glorious career ends: ‘Want to tell young women, don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do what you want’

Sania Mirza played the final match of her professional tennis career in Dubai on Tuesday, losing her first-round women’s doubles encounter, partnering with America’s Madison Keys, 4-6, 0-6 against Russian pair Veronika Kudermetova and Liudmila Samsonova.

The 36-year-old’s retirement ends a landmark career, having single-handedly represented India at the elite level of the sport. While there have been few Indian women to have even featured in Grand Slam main draws, Sania won six doubles Grand Slam titles, and spent 91 weeks as the doubles World No. 1.

Singles, where India haven’t seen success outside of Sania for nearly three decades, is the real marker for a nation’s tennis prowess. She became the first Indian woman to reach the second week of a singles Major, and reached a career-high ranking of World No. 27 on the singles tour.

As Sania winds down her 20-year-long tennis career, there is very little sense that she is on the decline – she reached the final of the Australian Open last month and showed many glimpses of the intelligent, attacking tennis that made her a force on the doubles tour.

But going out on her own terms was more important to her than extending her career further – she had planned to hang up her racquet at the end of 2022 but when her plans were derailed by injury, she extended it by a few months. The run in Melbourne was vindication of that decision, and a reminder of the love that so many fans have had for her over the years.

“I’m literally meeting people since then who have been telling me – ‘Oh, I watched your speech (after the Australian Open final) and we cried with you, because we just felt like, in all these years, we grew with you,’” Sania said in an interview with The Indian Express a few days prior to her final tournament in Dubai. “So, it was nice to know that the moment that meant so much to me, also meant so much to others.”

The adulation was not universal throughout her career though. As one of the first young Indian women to make a mark in professional sport in the 21st century, when athletes became a lot more accessible, she constantly felt the gaze of the public. Her appearance and fitness, public life, statements and stances were all scrutinised intensely, and her life choices relentlessly questioned.

Be it her return positioning on court, or the slogans she bore on her shirts when she walked onto it, enormous self-belief was evident in everything Sania chose to do. She feels that for up-and-coming athletes, who hopefully will never have to deal with the kind of scrutiny she had to face, self-belief is key.

“As a young woman, no matter what you do in life, you are put under a lot of pressures,” she said. “Some – I was lucky my parents were very supportive – have to deal with it at home. Externally, you have to deal with it in terms of the society at large… it is an ongoing process of simply trying to prove that you’re doing the right thing, just because it’s different.”

“I want to tell these young women – don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do what you want. You cannot let anybody else decide what you should or should not do, and I am sure they will try. No matter how outside the box your choice is, always back yourself,” Sania added.

Pressure is a word that Sania tends to get irritated by when she hears it too often. However, the symbolism of her success, as a young Muslim woman from Hyderabad going up against the world’s best, made her a path-breaker at a very young age. She was renowned as a trendsetter before she was acknowledged for tennis excellence – her powerful, whipped forehand should eventually find its place in the sport’s iconography.

Before the likes of PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, Mary Kom and Nikhat Zareen, Indian women growing up with the dream of pursuing sports professionally had only one person to look up to. That would invariably increase the pressure to perform, but true to form, Sania was not too keen to let it affect her, or hide behind it.

“You have to embrace the pressure,” she said. “Everybody is under pressure in all walks of life. That’s just how life works.”

“You need to thrive under that pressure. Because the difference between a champion and an average player is not actually the strokes, it’s not actually how you hit a forehand or backhand, the difference will come in how you perform when it is most needed. When the most is at stake,” she added.

Lone star

Sania was not just a flag-bearer for women’s sport, but for tennis in India in general, a not-so-gentle reminder of which came a few weeks after her run to the Australian Open final, when the Indian Davis Cup team was relegated to World Group 2 for the first time since the format change.

Sania chuckled when she was reminded that she was the last Indian player to win a tour-level (ATP/WTA) singles title, back in 2005. But she was hardly surprised. “There are big holes within Indian tennis,” she asserted. “While other countries are pumping millions into the game, over here, just when you win a tournament, you have people coming in posing for pictures, and that’s that. That is not how champions are made.”

“Honestly, all the people that have come out in India, whether it has been me or Somdev (Devvarman), or, when it was a Ramesh Krishnan or a Vijay Amritraj, I’ll tell you what everybody will say – ‘We have not come out because of the system, we have come out despite the system.’ In reality, there is no system,” she added.

After calling time on her career, Sania hopes to spend more time working with players at her academies in Dubai and Hyderabad – and has also accepted a mentorship role with the Royal Challengers Bangalore cricket franchise in the Women’s Premier League (WPL). The hope is to answer the one question that is constantly posed to her.

“The thought process is to try and help the next generation and try and find the answer to that question I’m asked all the time – ‘Who will come after you, that we have not been able to find for the last 20 years?’,” she said.

There are big questions over who that might be, and how that will happen. But one thing is for certain – they will all follow in the path that Sania forged for them.

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