“When I started playing we used to play on courts made out of cow dung, they were literally made out of sh**. I’m not joking, I don’t know why they were but they were made out of cow crap. There were no hard courts in Hyderbad,” India’s top tennis talent Sania Mirza tells Al Jazeera English.
With Hyderbad now hosting WTA tournaments - it is fair to say Indian tennis and Mirza have come a long way in the last 20 years. While seven out of the eight Wimbledon semi-finalist hail from Europe, the doubles competition is showing that Indian tennis is a force to be reckoned with.
Rohan Bopanna, Leander Paes and Mirza are all still in their respective doubles competitions, giving the UK’s large Indian population a lot to cheer.
Bopanna has still got two balls in the air after reaching the semi-finals in the men’s doubles and the quarters in the mixed.
“It feels good to be alive in both events. This is a playing surface I’ve always loved. I am happy to be in the semis and quarters. Now my target is to win these titles,” says a relaxed Bopanna with smoothie in hand.
However, there is a tennis wall of epic proportions in front of Bopanna and his partner Edouard Roger-Vasselin – doubles golden-boys - the Bryan brothers.
“If you are to win a grand slam you have to play the best pair in the world. They have been playing exceptional this year but we are high on confidence. We have got the momentum and have a really good shot at winning.”
But Bopanna, like any other doubles pairing, realises he is facing a phenomenon.
“They are the perfect partnership. They have helped doubles so much as a sport, promoting it all over the world… Doubles teams get recognised through these guys and they give fans interest.”
While Bopanna and Paes are well-known male figures in Indian tennis, the one who has achieved the most is female player Mirza.
The highest ranked Indian female to ever play, Mirza and partner Romania Horia Teciaran ran away with a straight set victory to make the mixed doubles quarter-finals.
Seeded second in the tournament, they will be hopeful of making the final, although Mirza is quick to point out seedings can be academic.
“Seedings as this tournament has shown mean nothing. People you don’t expect win. In mixed doubles they mean even less, most are playing with new people and it's about chemistry and how well you play as a team.”
Mirza – who had to quit singles tennis last year because of the toll it took on her body – realises she is lucky to be at Wimbledon.
“As a kid you dream of playing at Wimbledon. And on Centre Court. It’s the mecca of tennis. I am lucky to be achieving my dreams.”
For a female growing up in Hyderabad – the chances of playing grand slam tennis were at best remote. So how come she made it?
Today is better than 20 years ago when I started playing but even today people still have certain notion of what women should do, and it is definitely not holding a racket and hitting tennis balls
“Destiny plays a role. I was lucky to have parents who believed in sport, even with me being a girl. And with my sister too. But they didn’t think I would play at the highest level of a game that is so global,” Mirza says.
“Today is better than 20 years ago when I started playing, but even today people still have certain notion of what women should do, and it is definitely not holding a racket and hitting tennis balls.
“I hope that mentality changes and I’ve played some kind of role in trying to get people to realise you can be a professional sports woman and still be married and have a good family life.”
Both Bopanna and Mirza told me they were glad to find out that their previous rounds had been broadcasted on Indian TV.
"It definitely helps that people are getting to see it. By watching, that’s the start. Hopefully in 10 – 15 years more players will be coming up," says Bopanna.
Asked about the Indian support Mirza says, “We are everywhere – England has one of largest Indian populations. On Twitter I have a pretty big following. They showed one of our matches yesterday which is pretty big. I found out after the match from Twitter messages saying they watched the match.”
“That’s really big for tennis. Especially as cricket is the biggest sport there and almost like a religion. Not that we are competing with it but it’s good to know people are interested.”
Tennis does have a long, long way to go until it reaches the dizzy heights of cricket, but with Indian players continuing to shine at Wimbledon, and being watched back home, it might be sooner rather than later that Mirza has an Indian rival on tour.
“There is only one top female tennis player which has been me. There was never any other woman really.”
“When I made it big in 2005 everyone was a little shocked – or pleasantly surprised – everyone took notice. Who was this 18 year old girl who was in the top 30 within a year. Nobody thought that was going to happen from India.”
With Mirza and Bopanna still going strong at the All England club, India’s tennis players could soon be courting more success.
Source: Al Jazeera