On 21 February, a cool Tuesday evening in Dubai, Sania Mirza played her last professional match. The tennis icon, playing alongside her close friend, Madison Keys of the US, lost 4-6, 0-6 to Veronika Kudermetova and Liudmila Samsonova in the women’s doubles first round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. It was the swan song of one of the most storied careers in Indian sport.
Mirza is still the highest-ranked Indian in women’s doubles at 28 and made it to the mixed doubles final of the Australian Open last month. But the 36-year-old believes it is time to move on.
“I want to know for myself that I am leaving the game at the top, knowing that I am leaving it on my own terms,” Mirza told Lounge in a virtual interview before the start of the Dubai WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) event. “Those are decisions that are harder to take. It’s easier to say I am not playing well so I don’t want to play any more.” Over the 20 years she has been on the tennis tour, and in the public eye, Mirza has rarely taken the easier road.
She burst on to the scene, and into the nation’s consciousness, as a carefree 18-year-old at the 2005 Australian Open. In her very first Slam, she set the records tumbling by becoming the first Indian woman to reach the third round of a major. That same year, she became the first Indian to win a WTA title, in her hometown Hyderabad. The graffiti on her T-shirts off-court (with messages like “Well-behaved women rarely make history”) and speed on the forehand attracted global attention.
Mirza would go on to reach a career high of 27 in singles and make it all the way to No.1 in doubles. She won six Grand Slam titles—three in women’s doubles and three in mixed doubles—and claimed 43 WTA titles. In 2014, she won the doubles title at the WTA finals to become the only Indian to win the season-ending tournament in men’s or women’s tennis.
“I am really proud of what we have been able to do, you know, with the kind of facilities and the kind of infrastructure that we were with and the kind of things that we came with 30 years ago,” she said at this year’s Australian Open, where she ended her Grand Slam career.
“For me, it has been an incredible journey and I achieved dreams that I never thought I would be able to achieve. Of course, as an athlete, though, we are greedy. If you asked me, ‘Would you have liked to do more?’, sure. Instead of six, I would like to have 12 Grand Slams and be top player in the world in singles but that’s just not how life works.”
The seeds of the tennis dream were sown when Mirza walked on to the Nizam Club’s cow-dung courts as a six-year-old. A coach told her she was too little to play; friends and relatives advised her to stay out of the sun. Tennis in the country was underfunded and overlooked and no Indian woman had been a mainstay at Grand Slams before, which meant she essentially didn’t have a role model or blueprint to success.
To save travel and transport costs, Mirza’s family fitted a diesel engine into their Maruti 1000 when she began competing on the national circuit as a junior. The four of them, Sania, father Imran, mother Naseema and sister Anam, would cram into the car, sometimes live in it to save hotel costs, and crisscross the country. Mirza, with her family in tow, was charting a path of her own.
You know, what they say about the first one through the wall? It always gets bloody.
If breaking through into what was essentially a white sport was not enough, she was forced to fight battles off the court too. Most of these stemmed from her being a Muslim in an increasingly authoritarian Hindu country, and a woman in a deeply-entrenched patriarchal society. A fatwa was issued against her for wearing short skirts (her normal tennis attire), she was body-shamed, derided for being Pakistan’s “daughter-in-law” following her marriage to Pakistan cricketer Shoaib Malik, and pilloried for putting her career ahead of a more traditional family life. For nearly two decades, Mirza was India’s sole flag-bearer in women’s tennis but was forced to prove her patriotism every step of the way. In 2014, when she was appointed Regional UN Women Ambassador to South Asia, she admitted it was “difficult to be a Sania Mirza in this country”.
“People thought that I am not an emotional person,” she says. “I am a crazily emotional person; I am just good at faking it. These things would affect me a lot. There were times when I would cry in the room, there were times when I used to cry in front of my parents. I think I had a very solid system, friends and family around me who had my back. But I never had that person who would sit me down and tell me it’s okay if you lose the match. I had to learn it the hard way.”
The thing is, Mirza always stood out, whether for her force of personality or sheer talent. We had never seen an Indian tennis star play from the back of the court with such force and conviction, nor had we witnessed an Indian sportswoman so comfortable in her own competitive skin. Her confidence was often mistaken for arrogance. She wasn’t afraid to speak her mind or use her voice on social issues. It remains a thing of beauty to see Mirza swat away unwarranted criticism like she would a short ball with her searing forehand.
A trailblazer during her career, Mirza is already looking forward to helping a younger generation of athletes, be it through her tennis academies (one in India and four in Dubai) or her new role as mentor of the Royal Challengers Bangalore cricket team in the Women’s Premier League. “I would love to sit and watch all the matches. But my role over there is not to do anything with cricket; it has to do with the mental side of things,” she says.
“The belief part of it,” she adds. “Because there are enough people doubting you, there are enough people asking if it is worth putting this much money into women’s cricket or into women’s sport. The odds are stacked so high against you. I will be able to talk to the girls and at least share my experiences of how I dealt with such extreme situations. Where, at every step of the way, I was questioned, I was the only woman who was doing that in tennis and the pressure was immense every time I stepped on court.”
Despite the pressure and the doubts, Mirza’s self-belief never wavered. We got the first glimpse of it when she faced off against Serena Williams in the third round of the 2005 Australian Open, her Grand Slam debut. Williams was already a six-time singles Grand Slam champion but that didn’t faze Mirza. She stood up to the challenge and delivered a few punches of her own before going down. Later in the year, Mirza made it to the fourth round of the US Open. It still remains the best result by an Indian woman at the majors.
In singles, Mirza recorded memorable wins against players like two-time major champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and six-time singles Grand Slam champion Martina Hingis. She won a silver medal in singles at the 2006 Asian Games and represented India at four Olympic Games. When injuries made it impossible for her to continue in singles, she switched to doubles and became the best in the world at it. Her first Grand Slam win was the 2009 Australian Open mixed doubles title with Mahesh Bhupathi but it was Mirza’s partnership with Hingis that catapulted her to the top. Hingis’ finesse at the net and Mirza’s power from the baseline saw them win three majors in a row: Wimbledon and the US Open in 2015 and the Australian Open in 2016.
When Mirza was still ranked in the world’s top 10, she took a break from tennis to start a family. After giving birth to Izhaan, in 2018, she returned to the tour in 2020 and won her very first tournament, at Hobart in Australia.
“To be the best version of yourself, you have to be as authentic and true to yourself as possible,” she says. “Every call that I took, being the singles player, moving from singles to doubles, saying, when I was No. 8 or 9 in the world, that ‘okay, I am going to have a baby’, to coming back. All those things were something I wanted to do, so they came naturally to me. It’s not like I was putting special effort to do it or doing it against my will. Nobody told me to stop and have a baby. It was my decision. I wanted to do things according to Sania the athlete and Sania the person sitting at home. For me, it is very important to have a full and complete life.”
One glorious chapter of Mirza’s life has come to an end in Dubai, a city she has made her home since marrying Malik in 2010. “I am going to miss it. I am going to miss walking on big courts, miss competing and trying to win,” she admits. But her body was breaking down (Mirza has been playing with a torn meniscus muscle for over a year) and her mind is not willing any more after 20 years of the pro tennis grind. The priorities have changed for the mother-of-one.
“It takes a lot,” she says, while talking of the physical and mental reserves required to be a tennis player. “If you are not giving a hundred per cent every day of your life, you are just not going to be at that level. Everybody’s best is obviously different. Whatever you are giving, it has to be at hundred per cent. That is the biggest challenge.
“People only see the outer result when you are competing. But the amount of work that is going in off-court, whether it is emotionally, psychologically, technically, physically. It’s just hours and hours of grind. Putting your body and mind through challenges that are very extreme. There are so many people who are backing you, there so many people not just in your team or box but in your country that are backing you. So, you are taking weight on your shoulders, year after year. People sometimes forget how human athletes are. I don’t have the will as much—it’s not zero—to put my body and put myself emotionally and mentally through that grind every day.”
At this year’s Australian Open, a year after first announcing her plan to retire, Mirza fired up those dying embers once again, one last time. In her final Grand Slam, playing with a taped-up shin, Mirza delivered another memorable performance. She entered the mixed doubles event with Rohan Bopanna and held her own in the baseline battles against the male players in the rival teams. Her clean, courageous shot-making and sheer will to win made for riveting viewing. Mirza was displaying all the qualities that had helped her make a remarkable and iconic career out of tennis. The final didn’t quite go according to plan for the Indian duo but in her run to the championship match, Mirza showed what she was still capable of.
“I am glad because I would rather go when people ask me ‘why’ rather than ‘when’,” she says.
Don’t be surprised if, even in retirement, Sania Mirza continues to call the shots.
Deepti Patwardhan is a sportswriter based in Mumbai.