Sania Mirza is the great WTA Indian Tennis Player who brought India to the Top of the global map. She is the first Indian female player to win a Grand Slam title in any format and is also the only player to have broken into the top 30 of the WTA singles rankings.
YOU don’t want to mess with Sania Mirza. ‘You can either agree with me or be wrong’ read the slogan on one of her figure-hugging tee-shirts. ‘Well-behaved women rarely make history’ read another, worn at Wimbledon last year, while ‘I’m cute? No shit’ was emblazoned across her frontage at the US Open in September. Ms. Mirza has an attitude, in case you had not guessed.
When players talk about pressure, they sigh and try to explain what it is like to have a crowd of tennis fans taking an unnatural interest in their every move. Mirza, though, comes from India and not only faces the regular trials and tribulations of a professional athlete and celebrity, she also has one billion people at the home following and discussing her progress. She admires the likes of Tim Henman and Andy Murray for the way they cope with the media circus that follows them at Wimbledon, but she knows that the pressure she faces is on another level again. “The only difference is that I have a billion people following them and they don’t!” she laughed. “I am from India and I have to face it. These are the pressures I’m going to have for the rest of my life and there’s nothing I can do about it.
“This is what my country is like and people in India get very emotional about their heroes.”
Coming from a nation, and, indeed, a family, of cricket lovers, Mirza broke the mold from the moment she picked up a tennis racket at the age of six. Her talent was obvious from the start but with little by way of training facilities in her home town of Hyderabad, and with only her father to teach her, she constructed a style for herself that is based more on determination than the traditional technique. As in everything else in her young life – she is just 19 – she has taken on tennis and done it her way. Her competitive fire has already brought her one tournament title – her home town event last year – and a current ranking of 38 in the world. Like most teenagers, she is not yet ready to become a leader for her generation but, still, she is regarded as either an icon or “a corrupting influence” in her home country. She is a practicing Muslim but some more right-wing clerics in India have already attacked her for appearing in public in her tennis kit, the clothing they deem to be highly unsuitable for a young woman. One group of fundamentalists even went as far as to issue a fatwa against her, threatening to stop her from playing unless she followed the Islamic dress code.
Fortunately for Mirza, India is a very large country and a large proportion of the 100 million Muslims living there are just pleased to see her succeed. Admittedly, these days she has bodyguards to protect her when she goes home, but they are there to fend off as many autograph hunters and journalists as religious zealots.
It is a lot for anyone to take on board, much less a teenager, but Mirza is a tough cookie. Sharp as a tack, willing, and able to defend herself but also ready to laugh at the absurdities of her life, she does her best to put everything into perspective.
When her doubles partner, Liezel Huber, complained that the Bangalore crowd was too noisy as the duo were on the way to claiming the title this year, Mirza reminded her “you know what, you’d rather have them with you than against you”.
“So you just have to take everything optimistically,” Mirza said. She takes the same attitude to her career. She announced herself as a contender last year by winning in Hyderabad but this year the opposition has sized her up, worked out her weaknesses – her serve – and kept her quiet. Her best result came in Birmingham last week where she reached the third round. Enlisting the help of Tony Roche, Roger Federer’s mentor, to sort out that service, she is keeping her expectations to a minimum while she reconstructs her game and plans her move towards the elite level.
“There are so many people in India who believe I can be No.1 in the world by the end of the year,” she said, “and if I start saying that I am going to top ten, then that will just put extra pressure on me. That’s why I want to set myself realistic goals. If I stay in the top 50 this year, then that will be achieving my goal, but if stay in the top 25 then that will also be achieving my goal. But I think my main goal is never to be satisfied.”
In theory, her plans for Wimbledon this year should also be low-key. But Mirza is both a fighter and a realist and at 19, she has plenty of time to develop her career. And with so many people following her, she will never be short on support. “Wherever I’m playing, whether it’s at home or at Wimbledon, the amount of Indians that live in Wimbledon, it almost feels like home,” she said. One billion people can’t be wrong.