In an exclusive interview with CNN-IBN, Sania Mirza spoke on a variety of issues, including the latest Olympic selection row.
Rajdeep Sardesai: We appreciate your joining us Sania. First your views on Roger Federrer. Seven titles now, Incredible. Is he the greatest Wimbledon champion, you think?
Sania Mirza: I think that Roger Federrer is the greatest champion ever, not just Wimbledon I mean. It’s amazing, he’s an absolute genius and I think that we should all be so proud that we actually get to witness it in this generation, and that we watch him play everyday.
RS: Did you feel for Murray when he was crying? Could you understand what Murray must have gone through or what the people of England/Britain were going through?
SM: I usually support Roger all the time but yesterday I was for Murray. I think that he deserves to win a Grand Slam. If not one, he deserves to win a few. He is fortunately or unfortunately in an era of tennis where the top three guys are not just the best in the world but they are probably going to go down as the best ever and it’s unfortunate that Murray is so good yet he still comes fourth in the world, and I think he definitely deserves to win a few grand slams. Yesterday was the first time that I cried after hearing a post-match speech. I don’t usually cry but yesterday I did. I had tears in my eyes. I felt for him. I think he let everything out and I think it was amazing. He said, “At least I’m getting closer.” I think that sums it all up.
RS: Ok, so you cried a bit. From you own personal point of view Sania, you have had a mixed season. You won the French Open Grand Slam which was terrific and then Wimbledon comes and you lose in the first round of the mixed doubles, quarters of the Women’s doubles. Was that a bit of a letdown for you personally, what went wrong in the Wimbledon after all the glory of the French open?
SM: You know Rajdeep, tennis is very day-to-day. There is no guarantee of winning everyday and there is no guarantee that you’re going to lose, you know there is no guarantee about anything. And that’s the great part about tennis and that there is always a next day and yes, we had a great French open, we won it and we came to Wimbledon. It was unfortunate and we played one bad match, me and Mahesh [Bhupathi] together. We had a great season in Australia and France. We played one bad match unfortunately. It was unfortunate, we were disappointed, we were sad but as I said it even then that it wasn’t the biggest tragedy in the world. It happens, people play bad matches and people lose and it happens. As far as the women’s doubles in concerned, I think we were a bit unlucky, we ran into the Williams [Serena and Venus Williams]. Rather play the Williams in the final than play them in the third fourth round. So I think that it was a bit unfortunate
RS: But I must ask you, did the off-field controversies ahead of the Wimbledon affect you in any way? Did that affect you and Mahesh particularly in mixed doubles given the off-field controversies that were continuing in the run up to Wimbledon?
SM: You know there was so much negativity around before we played Wimbledon. There was just so much going on. You know, we weren’t even in the country and we thought it was too much. I can’t even imagine what was happening in India. I really can’t, and it was very unfortunate what happened. I think no one really wants to remember that. It was very messy and I don’t think that people realize how much it was disturbing us as well as a tennis player. I mean it was saddening for me to see tennis go through that
RS: So it affected you?
SM: Yea, I mean that’s not the reason we had a bad match though, if that’s what you’re saying. The fact of the matter is that people play bad matches and you lose. But I do think that all tennis players, there are a lot of strained relationships now. Because everything was out in the open and a lot was said and done and yeah, I think at some level it did strain mine and Mahesh’s relationship as well to some extent. I don’t know if that was the reason we played bad or not but I do think that we were all very disturbed by it.
RS: You issued an emotional statement once the Olympic Games wild card came through. Do you stand by everything you said? I remember you used the statement that you were being used as a bait to pacify a disgruntled player. You seemed angry, emotional. Do you stand by all that you said or was it all said in the heat of the moment?
SM: I always stand by whatever I say. I think you know me long enough now, I always stand by whatever I say. I am an extremely emotional person and I think that a lot of people ask me why I didn’t speak up when the controversy was going on and why I spoke up a week later. Well, the main reason for that was that I was number 12 in the world unfortunately. I was not ten and in any other country I would have been directly into the Olympics if there would have been any other player. But there is no other player from India who is even close to the top hundred or top two hundred in the world, any woman. So, I had to wait for my wildcard to come through to know if I was going there. I didn’t want to jump on the bandwagon without even knowing if I was going to the Olympics.
RS: But you made your displeasure clear? You used words like chauvinism, disrespect suggesting almost that you were upset that you were being treated differently to the male players and it seemed that you were angry with the way Leander Paes was being given the benefits that you were not. Do you believe that there is an unequal relationship in the way women and men tennis players are treated by the All India Tennis Association?
SM: I believed everything that was said in the statement, I don’t think that I was treated with respect which I deserved. And I think that to pacify someone I was being used. I want to make it clear again and again. I never said I will not play with anyone. I never said that I will not play with a person because I don’t get along with him or because I do. I repeat I will play with Leander, Mahesh, Vishnu, Rohan, Somdev, whoever the country thinks I’m good enough to play with. But I did have a problem with the way they paired me up to play with someone and it was almost like ok, to pacify him, you will get this and these people will get this and not once was my thing taken into consideration, nor was I taken into consideration or what I felt, what I wanted to do or anything of that sort. And the fact that I didn’t even get a phone call, anyway let’s not go there. The fact is that the negativity is behind us.
RS: You are saying that the negativity is behind you but you’re playing mixed doubles with Leander, it’s the Olympic Games. Somewhere is it possible to have that on-court chemistry when there has been so much that has gone wrong off-court and honestly answer, even today do you feel that maybe you would have preferred playing with Mahesh or someone else or is that negativity really behind you?
SM: You know I think we all are allowed to have preferences. I don’t think that it’s a crime to have a preference and the main preference was Mahesh. I wanted to play with Mahesh, one because we had been playing the whole year together, and two because I play the forehand side and he plays the backhand side and one of the reasons that I and Leander have not played in the grand slams is because we both play forehand side. I think not too many people understand how big a difference that makes. We both play the same side of the court. But I guess, we would work that out because the association thinks that we are the best team that is going to go and obviously they think that we are the best medal hope and I am all for it. I am hundred percent going there trying to win a medal for the country because that is the most important thing
RS: But will it affect you chances? Do you believe that the off-court controversies will affect your chances of winning a medal?
SM: I would like to think not. I mean if I am going to go to the Olympics or we are going to go to the Olympics thinking that oh, we are not going to win a medal, I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. I think we are going in there believing that we have a chance to win it and we are going in there believing that we are going to give our hundred percent and do whatever we can to win a medal.
RS: But you are being very candid when you say that you perhaps think that you had a better chance of winning a medal with Mahesh Bhupati than a Leander Paes. You are being totally candid there but obviously that is not a view which the selectors share.
SM: Maybe, I don’t know. But the fact of the matter is, like I said I am allowed to have preferences and just the way everyone has preferences, I am allowed to have preferences but I never once said that I will not play with anyone. I and Leander haven’t played in a couple of years together first of all, so hopefully we will get some practice before the Olympics.
RS: Have you at least spoken to him? Have you had a conversation since this controversy? Because it’s important to have some kind of communication. Have you been able to speak to him since the controversy has broken, has the ice been broken?
SM: No, I actually haven’t seen him. I haven’t seen him at Wimbledon, our schedules are different. In fact, I barely saw Mahesh. We saw each other at the match when we played, and after that we were not playing together so I barely saw him. I think he left, I don’t even know. I haven’t spoken to him.
RS: But I hope you are going to speak to him, you have to. He’s your doubles partner. The Olympics is starting in a couple of weeks.
SM: I always speak to everyone.
RS: But I’m presuming that you’re going to start practicing together sooner rather than later.
SM: I hope so. I am going to be in London on July 23 and I think that we got an e-mail from our captain saying that he would like all the players to be there on the 23rd in London. So I’m going to be there hoping that I would get to practice with my respective partners over there.
RS: Tell me honestly, has the image of tennis you think in India as a sport been affected? People see you as an icon; you are a role model for many young women who want to play tennis. Has all that has gone on, the way a lot of dirty linen has been washed in public, do you think it has affected the image of the sport of tennis for young people?
SM: Maybe it has. But the unfortunate thing is that I had nothing to do with the controversy. I was not even a part of it. I was a part of it only when they made me a part of it, at the end when they wanted to make a decision. I think people need to understand that I wasn’t the part of the controversy. I had to say something when my name was dragged into it for absolutely no reason. It was between the three guys who were arguing or whatever was happening between them and I don’t even know what was happening, to be honest. We were all in different cities in different counties.
RS: Someone said you were like a rose caught between two thorns
SM: Laughs. I don’t know if I was a rose but that’s not the word I used in my press release. That I guess a nicer way to put it.
RS: But somewhere at the end of this, what’s the big lesson you have learnt, from all that has gone wrong? Has it made you feel that Indian tennis has not given you your due? Not ever acknowledged that Sania Mirza must be treated as equal as the male players. Is that what rankles more than anything else?
SM: Look, I don’t want to keep dwelling on this but what I did say in the press release I stand by every word of it. I think I covered everything, whether that was answering to whoever had dragged me into it, and taken my name and who I thought had taken my name unjustly. I have mentioned everything in that and I think that I stand by it and I do not want to keep dwelling on something that has happened. I want to look at the Olympics and I think we should all look at the Olympics but I think it was unfortunate what happened. Yes, it did happen but I want to assure everyone, I can’t talk for other people. But I want to assure everyone that I will give my hundred percent for India because I always have, I have won twelve medals and I will want to add an Olympic medal to that tally.
RS: So is that the big goal now, winning the medal is the next goal now? You have set your heart on that I presume. And Leander has done well. He has reached the mixed doubles final at Wimbledon.
SM: Yes, I think that gives us great hopes. With us winning the French Open and Leander in the finals at Wimbledon, I think it’s been absolutely a great European summer for us. And going into Wimbledon, if I’ll be playing with Leander I think it’ll be great. It’s an honor to play with such a great player, a person of his calibre, a player that has been playing for so many years. It’s an absolute honour for me to play with him. And I think all I can assure is that we will give our hundred percent, we will put our best foot forward. We can’t assure a medal, no one can but we do assure that we will give our hundred percent.