With injuries and the pandemic derailing Sania Mirza’s comeback in 2020, the Indian is set for a busy summer as she competes at Wimbledon and the Tokyo Olympics. The 34-year-old Indian tennis star, who gave birth to her first child Izhaan in 2018, talks about parenthood, pilates and plyometrics as she heads into the grass season in the UK. Edited excerpts:
You career has had a lot of stop and starts, with the surgeries, coming back after childbirth and now the pandemic. How has it been overcoming these and then getting back into shape for a new start?
I have had an amazing career. It’s just about believing in yourself and believing in your abilities and backing yourself and that’s what I did every single time.
I was in India when the first lockdown happened, and I do have a tennis court at home so I didn’t completely lose touch playing. It just took some motivation to get back to full-fledged training. I do like fitness. I like staying healthy. As an athlete, by default we are in pretty decent shape. But fitness and off-court training is something I would do even if I wasn’t a professional tennis player.
Professional sport demands athletes to focus on themselves 24x7. The priorities would have obviously changed since you had your son. How have you made that adjustment and worked your career around it?
As athletes everything revolved around ourselves. It doesn’t come very naturally to you to think about other people but that’s the incredible part about motherhood. The second I found out I was pregnant my entire focus was on the baby. It wasn’t something I needed to adjust to it. It naturally happened that I put my baby before everything else. In terms of tennis, I have got really good support around me in my parents, sister. It’s all worked out very well.
It’s going to be a tough month and a half ahead with Wimbledon and Olympics. What has your training schedule going into it been like?
It is going to be physically and mentally challenging. Olympics bring up a lot of emotions. Also playing at Wimbledon after so long is going to be really exciting. I have been training for about four, four-and-a-half hours for it. With age, you have to adjust your training. I have been doing a lot of on-court work. But I have been training off-court as well. I have been doing a lot of explosive movements and agility stuff just to stay sharp and powerful.
I love doing plyometric (training), or with the medicine ball, a lot of jumping or the ladder work. What I really hate doing is those long runs, those 45 minute to 1 hour run or cardio, it’s just too boring.
The ball stays lower on grass courts. Is there any specific training you need to do for that as well?
It stays lower and is faster. There’s isn’t as much true bounce on the grass. On the hard courts you can only replicate it so much. I train with a Spanish guy called Cesar and he tries to feed balls and try and replicate as much as possible. We do a lot of stuff for glutes and hamstrings and quads because you use that a lot on the grass to stay down and low.
Training has to keep changing, the game is changing; it’s becoming more powerful. But also my body is getting older so the recovery is slower. So I have to kind of weigh things every day, every week with my team and figure out different ways to train.
Is there something you have incorporated in your training recently?
Over the last few years, I have done a fair bit of pilates. It is really good for the smaller muscles. It gives you some sort of flexibility, which I already have, but it also gives strength in the smaller and deeper muscles that you are not able to train very often in the gym.
Do you pay a lot of attention to your diet? What are your top do’s and don’ts?
I believe in moderation when it comes to diet. I try to avoid gluten; of course I don’t deprive myself of it. For example, I had two puris today because I felt like it. If my body is asking, I will give it the gluten. I try and stay away from dairy as much as possible even though I am a huge chai lover. I try to keep that down to one cup a day. As athletes we don’t need to worry about the weight part of it because we are burning so much fuel. Apart from that, the basic stuff like staying off sugar, again, when I say that it’s all in moderation.
You have some disappointments and heartbreaks at the Olympics. How are you feeling going into your fourth Olympics in Tokyo?
It’s been an incredible journey. If someone would have told me the last time that I could have another shot at Olympics, I would have laughed! It was one of the most devastating moments of my life (in Rio in 2016, when she and Rohan Bopanna lost the bronze medal playoff) to come that close to winning a medal and not win it. Having said that, I am really looking forward to it. I love representing India, everywhere I play, but especially playing for the country at the Olympics is a matter of pride and honour.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.