Sania Mirza burst into our collective consciousness when she turned pro four years ago. In a country starved of female role models her dogged climb on the WTA circuit, unique style and spunky attitude got her the spotlight effortlessly. This year Sania hit her career best ranking of 27, but couldn’t hang on to it for too long. So is this as good as it gets for India’s most successful female tennis player? She sure doesn’t think so.
Anuradha SenGupta: As of August you were number 27 in the world.
Sania Mirza: I don’t follow the rankings, so I don’t know.
Anuradha SenGupta: Does it mean that you are not focused on them, they just happen? You go up and then you go down and we follow it and celebrate when you go up. At least in the media there is a sense that Sania is climbing up the ranking.
Sania Mirza: Yes, I think for tennis players, or for athletes for that matter, ranking is just a number because we judge our performance according to the way we are hitting the ball. At the beginning of the year for example I was somewhere around 70s and everyone was writing me off and said that I am finished and it was all just a fluke. And then suddenly in August I was doing exactly the same things as I was doing in January. My ranking became 28 and suddenly I was all good and perfect for the world again.
Anuradha SenGupta: So, these numbers don’t mean much to an athlete?
Sania Mirza: If we follow numbers then we cannot be performing. Then every time I am playing it’s on my mind that I am 28 or 32 and I have to win this match. Then things cannot happen. I just watched Roger Federer lose to Fernando Gonzalez but that doesn’t make Gonzalez is a Federer. That still keeps Gonzalez eight in the world and Roger one. Tennis has so much depth that whether you are 80, 70, one or 10 really doesn’t matter. It’s about how you play on that particular day. For the media of course it’s different right.
Anuradha SenGupta: I’ll tell you why. It’s our sense of trying to understand what is it that you are aiming for and what is it that you have achieved and plan to achieve.
Sania Mirza: It’s theory. For people in general and the media, numbers are very important whether one or 10.
Anuradha SenGupta: Are you saying that it doesn’t matter to you at all. Wouldn’t you like to be a top 10 player?
Sania Mirza: Yes, I would but I am saying that tomorrow if I were to get injured and retire I am not going to say that I had a very bad career. I am not going to say that I didn’t make to the top 10 so I had the worst career.
Anuradha SenGupta: What are you 20 or 21? Not the ranking, I am talking about the age here.
Sania Mirza: I am 20 (laughs).
Anuradha SenGupta: That’s because we are recording this interview in the week of your birthday.
Sania Mirza: Yes, I am 21 in a couple of days.
Anuradha SenGupta: When did you become this tough nut?
Sania Mirza: In my head I am not 21. I have never been (laughs). I am ancient.
Anuradha SenGupta: You are a tough nut, you know what I mean here.
Sania Mirza: Of course. I think success and failure teaches you a lot. And the things that we have been through as tennis players, even though it’s just ‘sport’, we go through a lot to reach wherever we are today. You meet thousands of people and travel to so many places. You don’t have a normal life because you are away from your family and friends. Even sleeping sometimes is a luxury. So you learn a lot with these things. I can’t exactly explain how you learn but in the last few years I have learnt a lot. And I guess that’s why I am a tough nut, as you say.
Anuradha SenGupta: You lose some to win some. And you also give some to get some because nothing comes for free. But do you feel maybe that it would have been fun to be more carefree and not already on your career path at 21.
Sania Mirza: And not already 45 in your mind than 21.
Anuradha SenGupta: 45? I was putting it at 65.
Sania Mirza: Yes, sometimes it does.
Anuradha SenGupta: When are the moments when you feel ‘I wish…
Sania Mirza: Moments when I just want to go out and I don’t want people to stare at me. Or when people say ‘why is she wearing that or why does she have her hair like that’. Also when people just say ‘look what she is doing.’ There are moments like that when I just want to be myself. I feel like saying ‘I want to do my thing just like 500 other people are doing their thing say in a restaurant.’
Anuradha SenGupta: You were at the Indo-Pak cricket series in Mohali. You were watching the match and every time I tuned in we saw you flashed on the big screen that was there in the stadium. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I would love to be flashed in a packed stadium like that.
Sania Mirza: It’s good and bad. Bad because you are watching a cricket match, something that I love, and I was with my best friend who was screaming and going ballistic watching the game. And I so wished I could do that but I was always thinking that maybe they will focus on me and so I cannot behave like a hooligan. But it’s good in a way because every time they flashed me on screen, I’m being very honest, the whole stadium started screaming. That is something anyone would give up anything for.
Anuradha SenGupta: Yes, and you are a 45-year-old again. (both laugh) Now you play with and hang around with tennis players from different parts of the world. What is their perception of India when they meet you? Is there curiosity or this there knowledge?
Sania Mirza: There used to be a lot more curiosity but now people are knowledgeable because of the growing economy, but also for the fact that we have had so many tournaments in India.
Anuradha SenGupta: But you are no longer an oddity – this girl from India who plays tennis. That’s gone. That advantage Mirza has gone.
Sania Mirza: That was no advantage.
Anuradha SenGupta: No, that’s because if you were a Russian there would be just so many girls that everybody would get mixed up.
Sania Mirza: I would be blonde!
Anuradha SenGupta: No, but what are the Russians eating, what are they doing? How and why does it seem like they are just coming off a conveyer belt?
Sania Mirza: I think Russians are just very determined people. They have a do or die attitude. Tennis is life for them and it’s good and bad in many ways. I don’t know how many Indians would send their kids off to America with their fathers and say ‘you live in a car for the next god knows how many years and if you don’t make it then you come back and if you do then you are millionaires.’
Anuradha SenGupta: Is it do or die for you?
Sania Mirza: For me, well I am not going to leave my country and go and stay in a random place to be honest. And thankfully I haven’t had to do that too. I have managed to achieve something without doing that. I don’t want to go to a place and not know where I would be staying that night. I don’t think I can do that because for me at the end of the day tennis is part of life. It is going to stay with me for another five, six or seven years but beyond that I will still be a normal person and live a normal life.
Anuradha SenGupta: What you are saying is philosophical and it is good that it gives you an equilibrium. And yet is this what stops us from not having what people say – the killer instinct?
Sania Mirza: I don’t think this is killer instinct. I think it’s having your head on your shoulders. I mean people are seeing the 10 Russians that have come out but they are not seeing the hundreds that have not come out. Has anyone thought of those girls or what has happened to them? I remember when I was playing under 14-16 our ranking system had 500 people in it. Now there are probably one or two left from there and I am probably one of them. So, it’s not about killer instinct. Everyone has done what they could.
Anuradha SenGupta: Injury is something that dogs you on and off. We met Leander Paes on this show last year and he said, “I find that she is at the crossroads of her career right now. Right now she is at her 30s-40s of the WTA circuit. To get into the top 20, which is the real cream of the circuit, it’s going to take a great push. Sania Mirza has had quite a few injuries, which is a bit of a concern. If I had to advise her I would say she needs to concentrate on her physical abilities and training methods to prevent injury rather than to cure them.”
Are injuries the biggest stumbling block where your progress is concerned?
Sania Mirza: With all due respect to Leander I think doubles is very different from singles. It takes a lot more toll on your body and I don’t know how far he was in his singles. I think 70 or 80. One of the reasons I think he didn’t continue was because of injury. But in my opinion being in top 100 in singles in much harder than playing doubles and being in top 50 or 30. Injuries happen to everyone.
I mean Sharapova has struggled with so many injuries this year. Also Indians are not genetically as tough as the Europeans are. We are not cut out to be in a totally physical sport. That’s a fact. A lot of people may disagree with me but I still believe that. And because of that we have to push our bodies a lot more. And hence if you are going to punish your bodies everyday I don’t think then it’s humanly possible to remain injury free. I lost three months this year because of my knee but that is something which happened when I was the fittest.
Anuradha SenGupta: You are currently on an injury break?
Sania Mirza: No, it’s off season now.
Anuradha SenGupta: We have been reading that you were recovering from an injury.
Sania Mirza: Yes, but I am fine now.
Anuradha SenGupta: So, you okay then.
Sania Mirza: Yes, it doesn’t hurt me when am talking (laughs).
Anuradha SenGupta I was hearing Yuvraj Singh and his father talk on a programme, and it seems that Yuvraj as a child, loved skating and he won a medal. His father chucked away the medal saying, 'play cricket'. Now, we hear of this very often and in the tennis circuit, the ‘tennis parent phenomena’ is very well known. Did you want to do this as a child or is it something that you got hooked on to?
Sania Mirza I actually started playing tennis because I had nothing to do in my summer holidays. I was the first child and the only child in the house for about eight years and I had all the attention on me and my father wanted me to play a sport - not professionally, but just play he said. And maybe if I was a guy, I would probably be doing what Yuvraj Singh did, play cricket. Funnily enough, I used to skate as well. I used to skate first and then go and play tennis.
Anuradha SenGupta But your parents didn't chuck your skates and say 'play tennis'.
Sania Mirza My mum did. Believe it or not. But she chucked them for a different reason, because I was skating one day and I fell and I was unconscious for about 22 seconds I think and I still remember this, but when I woke up, my mum was slapping me so hard and the next thing I know, the skates are off and she says, 'this is never getting on your feet again'. And I have never seen skates again.
Anuradha SenGupta How much is parental pressure or parental expectation contributing to your success?
Sania Mirza There is a difference between putting pressure and saying, 'listen you're going to go to the court at 2:30 and not come out till 6:30' and saying 'do you feel like going for tennis today and if you don't want to go, you can go to that birthday party or your friend's house'. My parents had the second approach and I think I was very lucky.
Everytime parents come up to me and ask me what can we do for our children, I say at first you need to calm down and at the end of the day it's a sport and I think that's what has helped me get where I am. My dad's very calm, though my mum is a bit hyper.
Anuradha SenGupta I watched a match of yours at Wimbledon with Elena Dementieva and the match was going well for you but at some point the match just started to unravel.
Sania Mirza It was 5-2, 5-2 in both the sets for me and I had set points in both and I lost I think 7-6, 7-5 if I am not wrong. You know tennis is not just about the game. It is about adapting to a lot of things and one bad point and the whole game goes away.
It's very hard to pinpoint a reason, but a lot of things matter and one point can do that. One point you play badly and your confidence can go bad. One unbelievable point from your opponent can be a turning point for your match. If you don't believe you can beat an Elena Dementieva who's number seven in the world, then you can lose the match from a very good position too.
Anuradha SenGupta The other thing I noticed in that match was that the cameras loved you. They loved everything from your earrings to your hair, it was clear that you were the star of the court. Is that something that you realise or do you just get annoyed by it?
Sania Mirza No it does not matter to me because people say a lot of things. But I also see that a lot of girls have picked up tennis rackets because I have been playing tennis, but at the end of the day, I do what is best for my tennis. I might wear a nose ring, I might have 10 piercings in my ear and I might wear an orange colour T-shirt but at the end of the day, it's how I am playing and how I am feeling that matters to me.
I would prefer that girls start playing tennis instead of saying that we follow your style. But I see that when one gets fame, automatically people start to like everything about you, like is the case with Maria Sharapova.
Anuradha SenGupta But do you enjoy the clothes and the accessories?
Sania Mirza I think I am going to let the 21-year-old take over again and I am going to say yes. Every 21-year-old likes to dress up and likes make up. Just because we are tennis players does not mean that we are tomboys and that we like being sweaty.
Anuradha SenGupta It's not just the girls that look up to you, but my sources tell me that in the cool circuit and the young circuit, there is this major sex symbol image that you have where boys are concerned. Do you know this?
Sania Mirza I don't know about this and I prefer not to actually. I would prefer to just know that the girls like me and that they like to look up to me as a tennis player.
Anuradha SenGupta: There are statements floating around about how you admire some cricketers. You know that’s very dangerous. You do these things and you know what happens.
Sania Mirza: (laughs) Well, okay I will do this is on camera officially. I was asked a question, “So we know who your favourite Indian cricketer is. Now tell us who is your favourite Pakistani cricketer?” So what am I supposed to say.
Anuradha SenGupta: Who is your favourite Indian cricketer?
Sania Mirza: Sachin Tendulkar. Now that is given and so it is not asked anymore. So then they want to know about the Pakistanis. And I said I like Shoaib Mallick, Shahid Afridi and I like Shoaib Akhtar for his aggression. That got completely blown up and there were headlines saying ‘Sania bowled over by Shoaib Akhtar’ and Shoaib Mallick and Afridi were forgotten.
Anuradha SenGupta: When you meet our cricketers these guys are in another time and space zone in terms of what people expect from them. But the adulation they get is another side of the coin. Do you wish that tennis would reach that kind of space or are you happy with the kind of attention you get?
Sania Mirza: I think I deal with it already. But of course for good reasons I hope one day tennis does reach that space. But for obvious reasons I hope not. I always tell these cricketers that at least you are 11 of you handling it all, but I am the only one. Everything is on me. If they lose they can just put it on the other guy but that’s just how it is.
Anuradha SenGupta: You know when US President George Bush came to India and the speech he made in which the one name he mentioned was yours. Today, you are an icon for women, India, Hyderabad, Muslims. Look at any way you want to describe yourself and you are an icon. If you were to choose to be an icon or a spokesperson for Indian women or the best tennis player, which one would it be?
Sania Mirza: I am trying to be the best tennis player ever and everything else is coming along with it. I my opinion I am going to try and be my level best and with that if I have to be the spokesperson for India then it’s welcome. But those are all add-ons.
Anuradha SenGupta: If there were a choice to be made it would be what got you all in the first place.
Sania Mirza: Of course, otherwise I would have stopped playing tennis last year itself and done some movie or something.
Anuradha SenGupta: Yes. You have got movie offers is it?
Sania Mirza: Yes, I have got a few offers but…
Anuradha SenGupta: Hindi or Telugu films?
Sania Mirza: Both.
Anuradha SenGupta: You speak Telugu?
Sania Mirza: No, I don’t. But I have made that very clear that I want to be remembered only as a tennis player.
Anuradha SenGupta: Are you remotely interested?
Sania Mirza: No, zero.
Anuradha SenGupta: But you are amused.
Sania Mirza: I am amused, very amused because in India people think that the ultimate goal is always to be in Bollywood. And it is like you are never big enough or have achieved enough unless you have become a hero.
Anuradha SenGupta: I really wish that you are one of the best tennis players in the world and I hope that when you end your career, several years from now, that is the note you end it on.
Sania Mirza: Thank you very much.