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Cover Story
August 05, 2016

Sania Mirza: “The pressure to perform is always there.”

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photographed by Rohan Shrestha. Styling by Shweta Navandar. Make-Up and Hair: Bianca Louzado. Location: Renaissance Mumbai Convention Centre Hotel

Tennis superstar, who does not hesitate to wear her attitude on her sleeve, tells us about the moves that have powered her on and off the court

Sassy, spirited, spunky, and successful —soubriquets that describe, but not quite define, the tennis ace who is all that, and much more. Ever since she stepped onto the courts and into the public eye about a decade and a half ago, her attitude — sometimes as feisty as her powerful plays — and her performances, made news and grabbed headlines.

So, even as Sania Mirza wowed her growing fans with her match-winning forays on national and international venues, her off-court behaviour, assertiveness and way of dressing brought her both brickbats and bouquets. But largely taking the slings and arrows in her stride, the young tennis player grew from strength to strength and captured the imagination of a cricket-crazy and Bollywood-inspired nation. And it can definitely be said that the young icon has helped put India firmly on the global map with respect to women’s tennis, and has motivated a host of young Indian girls to follow their dreams, despite all odds.

The route to success has not been easy for the Mumbai-born, Hyderabad-based sensation. On the personal front, her marriage a few years ago to Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik raised eyebrows in different media forums. Professionally, injuries — and surgeries — dogged her footsteps; at one point, even raising doubts in her own mind of her ‘play-worthiness’. But, the intrepid fighter bounced back. She switched her focus to her doubles game, beginning to add more titles to her kitty. And, of late, Mirza, pairing up with Martina Hingis, has blazed a winning trail in the Grand Slams — and other tourneys — making #SanTina a formidable combination to face across the net.

2015 was undoubtedly Mirza’s year — the Indian tennis icon won a staggering 10 titles in the 12 months. Following the stupendous success of SanTina, last year, the formidable pairing was named Women’s Doubles World Champions by the International Tennis Federation (ITF). The year also saw her being conferred with the prestigious Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award, becoming the second tennis player (the first being Leander Paes) to receive the country’s highest sporting honour.

2016 has begun favourably for her, with SanTina clinching the Australian Open tournament and going on to win three more tourneys, thus making it 13 titles — and 41 consecutive match wins — for the pair. The leap year has also seen her being honoured with the Padma Bhushan — a step up from the Padma Shri that the player already had.

Today, she can shrug off the carping criticism and early years of struggle with a wry smile — of satisfaction and perhaps a little smugness — a feeling she can afford to nonchalantly display. Air-dashing to Mumbai from her hometown, Hyderabad, for her interaction with Verve, Mirza gets into rewind mode — touching upon matters close to her heart that have made her the force she is. And like always, she maintains, “My confidence is a natural quality — it is not something that I think of. I have always felt that what I believed in was right.”

“It is important that I believe.”
To me, the power of being Sania is more than what it normally means. The most powerful thing about me is that I am very stubborn and determined. If you are not made that way, it’s very difficult to succeed. I believe that I can be the best in the world at anything that I do. Whether I am or not is a different issue altogether. But that belief is the greatest motivational factor.

“Being in the spotlight can be tough.”
I have lived in the limelight since I was 15 years old, obviously not by choice.  The exposure came very early in my life. Today, having grown up with it, I can call it a privilege. But, it has had — and continues to have — tough moments as well. I chose to play as a young girl, and with success, fame came along. But to grow up famous is difficult, for as a teenager one makes a lot of mistakes. And, when the things you do at that age get written about and criticised, it is difficult to stomach. You soon learn to take the pros with the cons. My life has had its challenges, but my family stood by me. And I ensured that I remained grounded — so that has been my greatest strength.

“I have had a blessed life.”
Last year was very good. Getting to the number one spot was the biggest high — that is a very special moment for any athlete. I feel extremely privileged to have received the Khel Ratna Award and, to be in this position — and when I say this, I really mean it. Recently, everything has been good, better…best!

“The pressure to perform is always there.”
When you’re number one in the world, you’re expected to win every match. It doesn’t matter if you’ve won 10 or 40. Martina and I won 41 matches in a row, but when we lost the 42nd match, people spoke about it and that is the one that everyone will remember. When you’re in that position, you’re the hunted player. Everyone wants to gun you down, that’s how it works. But, I love the pressure and would rather be in this position than not in it.

“I have had to fight for equality.”
I have never sugar-coated that. When I started playing tennis, no one would have dreamt or even thought that a girl from a smaller city like Hyderabad could, at some stage, become a national or international-level player. Girls still face inequality and it is not just in the world of tennis. It is all a by-product of the culture that we are living in. In India, it is a man’s world. As a woman, I have had to prove a lot of things too, much more than I would have had to if I were a man. But that is just the way things work and at the end of the day I take great pride in the fact that I have struggled and come out on top.

“I have always gotten along with my partners.”
The playing equation is better if you get along off the court too. Some people do it very professionally — they do not get along off the court but are still able to play well as a team. For me that is tough. I like to be connected in some way. We don’t need to be best friends, but I should be able to have dinner with them once in a while. Martina and I were not friends when we started playing together, but things completely changed along the way. The turning point was Wimbledon — it was an epic final and we just felt that the emotions we shared were very special. So, after that we kind of trusted each other more off the court and on the court as well. While playing, we took off right away and won the first three tournaments…and I think we are a much better unit today. Initially, we played together as two individually good tennis players; today, we play as a team, as a unit, and that’s why we have become so tough to beat.

“We live highly charged lives.”
Shoaib and I are both professional athletes who play very emotionally charged games — and that explains the pressures we work under. Though, it does become easier when your partner is living that kind of life too. You understand what they are going through, and they do as well.

“I am very thick-skinned.”
When you are a trailblazer, the first to do things, it is hard. Yes, you get a lot in return, but you also get a lot of attention and there is a great deal of negativity — especially on social media. Anonymously, people are writing and saying stuff, getting away with almost anything, knowing nothing about you. Most of the time I am okay with people who criticise me about my game, but when they get personal, it becomes tough to take. It is not easy to hear people say things about your family, for absolutely no rhyme or reason. So that’s why you have to be thick-skinned; but having said that, you have to try and put everything behind you. It is also important to take the positivity from the people who love you.

“I am a big control freak.”
I can ignore what I do not like, but I do like to have my way with things. Of course, I have my weaknesses, everybody does — many things rattle me. I am a very impatient person and that comes out in the way I play. My biggest drawback is that I like efficiency and when faced with inefficiency — or if I do not get the answers I want — I find that difficult to deal with. I can easily cope with pain — my physical tolerance is very high — which is a good and a bad thing, for I do not know when to stop. Mentally, I am quite strong as I grew up very early and had to swiftly take in a lot of stuff.

“I hope some girls have been inspired by me.”
I’ve always done everything that I have believed in and loved, and not let detractors or society hold me back. I hope that I have radiated that kind of attitude, grit and determination. It is a matter of honour for me to be in the position that I have been in and I hope that I have influenced some girls to pick up tennis racquets, or just do anything that they love. Even if I have helped a few girls to do something that is out of the box, I feel privileged.

“The love of the game powers me on.”
The fact that I want to play tennis keeps me going. I have never got up feeling, ‘Oh, god, I have to play tennis today.’ Where I am now, it is very easy for me to stop. I have the fame and the money. I have achieved everything that I possibly could have, and can just sit back and call it quits. But my passion for the game and will to achieve certain goals that I have set for myself keep me going.

“My autobiography is forthcoming.”
It is actually done — and should be out soon if things go according to plan. I am going to have my say, be as direct as I normally am in real life. A lot has been said about me over the years. Everyone wrote what they thought I said. Things were often interpreted differently from what I’d actually said. This book comes from me and I owe it to myself, my family and everyone just to put my point of view forward.

“Brand Sania is honest.”
I have been a brand for a very long time, and Brand Sania has changed over the years. But, I think, one thing that’s remained constant is the fact that I am honest. That is something that I take great pride in. I have grown up, we all do, and I might not say certain things in the way I used to, but the fact is that I am still honest. That is what Brand Sania is all about.

“2016 is a big year.”
This is an Olympic year and it started off on a great note. I will take each day as it comes and hopefully it will be better than 2015 was. It has started with the Padma Bhushan honour and the Australian Open win; so hopefully it will end with wins as well.

Read about our other power women here.

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