Hyderabad: In the course of her tennis career, Sania Mirza has achieved many laudable feats. She has won six grand slam doubles titles, many WTA titles and been ranked as World No.1 in doubles. Now she will represent India at the Tokyo Olympics which will be her fourth Olympic participation. But all this has been made possible due to the hand of providence which once saved her and her parents from certain disaster.
The day was 1st February, 1991. Sania was then four years old. Along with her parents, she was to have boarded a flight from the city of Columbus in Ohio, USA, to Los Angeles that day. But a phone call from her aunt made them postpone their journey date by a day. Her aunt felt that it would be more convenient if they arrived a day later.
So they put off the journey. That turned out to be a fateful decision. Because the flight on which they were originally booked to travel, crashed enroute killing many of the passengers and two crew members. So it was a huge slice of luck that kept the Mirza family safe that day. Later in her career, there were other instances too, when it seemed as if a divine hand was guiding her along the path to success.
After returning to India from the USA, her parents enrolled Sania in Nasr School for Girls and signed her up for swimming and tennis lessons. Her career began from that point.
One day in 1993, the family was seated around the TV and watching the Wimbledon final between Steffi Graf and Jana Novotna. At one point Sania’s father Imran said to his wife Nasima: “What if one day Sania becomes a professional tennis player and gets to play at the Wimbledon?” They all had a good laugh at the thought. But little did they know that their daughter Sania would one day bring their wild dream to reality.
Sania began showing signs of her great talent from a very young age. When she was a student of Nasr School, she began winning tournaments at the state and national level. Like an irreversible force she surged onwards till she became the best ever women’s tennis player in India.
But it was not an easy path to tread. Along the way she had to overcome injuries and controversies on and off the court. But her fighting spirit and resilience under pressure enabled her to carry on regardless of the mishaps and rude comments. Perhaps this ability to bash on and never cease to battle the odds was inherited from her family members who were sportsmen at different levels.
Her uncle Faiyaz Baig Mirza was the wicketkeeper of Hyderabad’s Ranji Trophy team in the 1980s. Former India captain Ghulam Ahmed who was one of India’s best off spinners during his cricket career, is related to the Mirza family. So also Asif Iqbal who left Hyderabad for Pakistan in the 1960s and went on to become the captain of Pakistan team.
In her early years Sania was coached by her father Imran Mirza who is himself a great sports enthusiast and had played tennis and cricket as an amateur. He had also launched a sports magazine in the 1980s and is even now, an excellent writer. While still in school, Sania went on a winning spree. Her thundering forehand shots were her strongpoint.
When G.V. Krishna Reddy, Chairman of the GVK Group, came forward to offer support, it helped Sania’s career to take off just at the right time of her life.
But it was her victory in the girls’ doubles event of the junior Wimbledon championships of 2003 with Alisa Kleybanova of Russia as her doubles partner that was a watershed moment of her career. It made everyone sit up and take notice. This was no ordinary girl. Here was an exceptional talent. It was at that moment that sports pundits and ordinary fans realised what they had in their midst. A huge crowd turned up at the Begumpet Airport to welcome her when she returned after her victory.
Throughout her career, Sania’s parents played an important role. “Team Sania”, as she calls them, did all the meticulous planning down to the minutest detail about how her career should progress. They also shared her pains and heartaches as well as the moments of triumph and glory. The early days were often uncomfortable and even risky. Sometimes Sania and her parents and little sister Anam had to undertake long and difficult road journeys to reach match venues.
On one occasion they had a hair-raising experience of being caught up in the midst of political violence in Kolkata while trying to reach Guwahati for a tournament. Anyone who has seen political or communal violence in Indian cities knows how things can go completely out of control and that is what happened that day. The Mirza family had to travel through the midst of the violence raging on the roads, to reach the airport to take the flight to Guwahati. Later they narrowly escaped being blown up in a bomb blast. But the family stuck it out through thick and thin.
In the book “Ace Against Odds” tennis star Mahesh Bhupathi has written: “She has always faced adversity with the same principles that her life is built upon – single minded focus, self belief and self respect. I believe that she has been instrumental in changing the face of Indian sport, especially where women are concerned.”
Now, at the age of 34, it is amazing to see that Sania still finds the motivation to play tennis at the highest level. A tennis player’s life is a hard and energy sapping one. A player must travel often, live out of a suitcase, check in and out of hotels almost every week, fight jet lag and then battle the opponents on the court. Not everybody can continue this lifestyle after 30; especially, not after marriage and children. But then, not everybody is Sania.
She has overcome career threatening injuries, battled on the courts with painkillers to reduce the agony, got over the disappointments of being used as a pawn in political battles and seen the good and bad aspects of sport. She has often put the country’s interests before her own. And she remains till now, one of the few tennis players in India (male or female) who has the charisma to pull in crowds. Even those who are not regular tennis fans will turn up to watch if they know that they will see Sania Mirza in action.
At the Tokyo Olympics, she will be fighting it out beside her doubles partner Ankita Raina and once again tennis fans and others will watch avidly, hoping that the jewel from the City of Pearls, Hyderabad, will bring back to India a coveted Olympic medal which is the only prize missing from her overflowing trophy cabinet.
Abhijit Sen Gupta is a seasoned journalist who writes on Sports and various other subjects.