This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Australian Tennis Magazine. Subscribe now!
Sania Mirza was a study in health and vitality when she sat down for our one-on-one interview during the WTA Finals in Singapore.
Appearing fit and relaxed, she chatted expansively and laughed easily, not always the case when it comes to professional tennis players – especially one as in demand as this Indian superstar.
Then again, why should anything be stressing her?
Mirza was soon to conclude a career-best season and perhaps one of the most dominant doubles campaigns in the sport’s history.
After teaming with Martina Hingis in March 2015, the duo won nine titles and built a 55-7 win-loss record. Both are now co-ranked No.1 in the world.
Asked in Singapore to assess their level of ‘swagger’ on a scale of one to 10, Mirza, who has more than three million Twitter followers, replied with a smile: “I don’t want to give a number, but it’s pretty high.”
“Me and Martina are obviously able to do a lot together, and are kind of dominating at this point,” she added when speaking to Australian Tennis Magazine.
“We would love to win a bunch more Grand Slams. I mean why not, right? I feel like we put ourselves in that position every time we step on the court. We put ourselves in a position to win.”
When you recap her season, the soaring confidence is quickly put into context. She and Hingis went undefeated in their first 14 matches, a run including the Indian Wells, Miami and Charleston titles. They won at Wimbledon and at the US Open and then went a perfect 16-0 during the Asian swing, hoisting trophies in Guangzhou, Wuhan, Beijing and at the WTA Finals.
Why had they gelled so well, so soon?
At first glance, it was a typical Hingis partnership – she being the ‘brains’ or ‘hands’ of the duo, combining with an effective power-hitter.
The formula had served the Swiss well, right back to when she was winning Grand Slam titles with Mirjana Lucic and Mary Pierce.
Yet Mirza is no simple power merchant, producing brainless blows from the baseline. Her repertoire is almost as diverse as the one Hingis possesses, from her perfectly-weighted lobs to her expert poaching at the net.
It explains the dazzling doubles career she has enjoyed – before Hingis, she had already won 23 doubles titles and reached the 2011 Roland Garros final with Elena Vesnina. She’s also a three-time Grand Slam mixed doubles champion.
But it’s that jaw-dropping power – aided by sweet timing in the absence of any remarkable height or muscle – that has defined her career.
It was obvious as soon as she surfaced on the singles scene in 2005; at just 18, she won her first WTA title in Hyderabad, reached the fourth round at the US Open and finished the year ranked No.31.
She was a trailblazer – Mirza was the first Indian woman to win a title, crack the top 50 and go as deep as she had in a major tournament.
She became a subcontinental superstar and a role-model for Muslim women the world over. In late 2014 she was appointed a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador for South Asia, the first woman from her region in UN history to take on the role.
She describes her emergence as a young girl with a sling-shot forehand from a huge country with little previous tennis pedigree as something that “caught everyone’s imagination”. And one that took plenty of adjusting to.
“It wasn’t easy, but I’ve learned to deal with the fact that, yes, I am a tennis player, but I’m also these other things that go with who I am, whether I like it or not,” explained Mirza, the first Indian woman ever to ascend to No.1 in either singles or doubles.
“When you do take a step back and you try and just see the things you have achieved and the kind of lives you probably have touched in the course of your career and your life, I feel extremely honoured and privileged and that’s something I take responsibility for.
“Being the ambassador for United Nations for women, for me it’s about equality, and I firmly believe in that stuff. I’ve had the opportunity (to make a difference by) growing up famous so to say – I was 15 when I kind of became famous back home and it’s only gotten bigger since then.”
Mirza struggled to match her 2005 exploits, although she did peak at world No.27 in 2007 and completed six seasons as a top-100 player. Much of the reason for that was injury. Chronic wrist and knee injuries forced her off court for months at a time, almost every season since 2006. Her wrist troubles were particularly devastating.
“I literally couldn’t pick up a fork to eat my own food with my right hand,” she revealed. “I felt handicapped at that point.”
She faced a tough decision – give away her singles career, or quit the game entirely.
She played her last singles match in Eastbourne in 2012.
With her competitive load drastically reduced from the sometimes nine matches she played each week, she hasn’t looked back.
“I still had a lot of singles left in me, it was just my body gave up. I had three surgeries in the span of eight years and every time I kept coming back to top 30 in the world I got hurt. It wasn’t an easy process mentally, always fighting that battle of going and playing the smaller events to try and come back,” she said.
“In hindsight now when you’re No.1 in the world, it was the right call. But at that point it was the toughest decision of my life, of my career.
“I’m a bit of a control freak – like a lot of tennis players are – so for me personally it was very tough because I was having to give up something that was not in my control and it wasn’t on my own terms… for a few months it was pretty hard.”
She still struggles with injury – Mirza revealed that she had battled a foot problem throughout 2015.
Rather than take more time off, she simply manages it, protects it and accepts she will never compete pain free.
“There hasn’t been a day when I’ve woken up and gone, oh my body feels absolutely fine,” she said. “I’ve put my body under pressure since I was six years-old so it’s not going to be in the best of shape.”
Mirza is therefore cautious when predicting her future on tour. But she does know the following. She is playing this year, her 14th pro season. She would like to end her career while still at the top of the game. And the joys of competition and the intense emotions of winning and losing will be hard to replace.
“There are very few days where I don’t feel like hitting a tennis ball. Maybe, yeah, after a long season I want to take a week off, but after a week, even during that week, I’m itching to go for a run or do something,” she said.
“Tennis is a part of me. It’s a very big part of me.”
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