Mirza: India has champions outside of cricket as well

Indian tennis star talks about gender equality, her Bollywood biopic and living in a cricket-crazy country.

sania mirza
Mirza is one of India's highest-paid athletes with more than $6m in career earnings [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

Doha, Qatar – Sania Mirza is India’s most successful female tennis player, having won six doubles Grand Slam titles and making it to the top of the doubles rankings in 2015.

The 30-year-old from Hyderabad has amassed more than $6m in career earnings.

But, as Mirza notes, women’s tennis in India has been slow to cash in on her success.

In an interview with Al Jazeera on the sidelines of the Qatar Total Open, the current women’s doubles world number seven talks about her journey to the top, Bollywood’s impact on sports and her fight for gender equality in the subcontinent.

Al Jazeera: You’ve been number one in the world and have six Grand Slam titles. What keeps you motivated and what more do you want to achieve?

Sania Mirza: I like playing tennis, obviously. I like competing. I love that feeling of winning and stepping on the court. It’s not always just about a number that you’re trying to achieve. We’re trying to win every tournament, whether it’s a Grand Slam or a regular tournament. It would be great to get back to number one in the world, but I was there for almost two years. I feel like I just want to keep working hard and playing as long as I enjoy the pressure of competing.

Al Jazeera: In your autobiography Ace against Odds, you talk about all the challenges you’ve had to face on and off the court. Why did you feel the need to write the book?

Mirza: The book took almost eight years to finish because I had so much to write about. Things just kept happening and there were so many achievements on and off the court that I had to mention.

A lot had been said and done about me in the media, both good and bad. That’s why I felt like I owed it to myself, to my family, and also to my fans that they hear everything about the struggles and what we’ve been through as a tennis family, from me. Whatever was ever written about me, it was always through a second person, never really my own words.

The main reason behind writing the book was to try and inspire youngsters from the subcontinent – especially young girls – to try and pick up a tennis racket and achieve their goals.

READ MORE: Defying age and younger opposition, Paes keeps winning

Al Jazeera: India has made Bollywood films on sporting icons like Mary Kom and Milkha Singh. What effect do these films actually have on young people?

Mirza: I think we, people of the subcontinent, come from a very cricket-obsessed culture. We try to act like we are a sporting nation two months before the Olympics, Asian Games or Commonwealth Games. Until then, nobody really cares. We need to remember that we have champions outside of cricket, as well.

Most sports don’t get the kind of support, help or viewership that is given to cricket. But because of movies like the ones you mentioned, the whole country realises who these people are.

Bollywood is probably the biggest industry that we have. It’s one way to reach out to the masses and, actually, celebrate. 

Al Jazeera: Do you wish to see a movie made on you in the future?

Mirza: There are some talks going on, but there’s nothing concrete right now. I’m a private person, so it is a difficult ask of me to open up completely. There were some parts, even in the book, that were difficult for me to write about.

The Sania Mirza Tennis Academy was launched in Hyderabad in 2013 [Reuters]
The Sania Mirza Tennis Academy was launched in Hyderabad in 2013 [Reuters]

Al Jazeera: You’re among a handful of Muslim women on the WTA Tour. Why do you think there are not more female Muslim tennis players coming out of India?

Mirza: There are no girls coming out of India, either Muslim or non-Muslim. It has nothing to do with religion. It’s not really a Muslim problem. It’s a general cultural problem when it comes to girls in the subcontinent. We want them to get married, to be fair skinned, teach them how to cook, and not let them do what boys do.

We hear all these things since we are six years old. Every young girl in the subcontinent can relate to this because they’ve been told, including myself, that’s what they should be doing and not be playing outside.

Al Jazeera: Gender inequality is still an issue all across South Asia, including India. Have you seen people’s attitudes change towards you over the past decade of being a pro?

Mirza: I do a lot of work for the UN and being their brand ambassador for South Asia, I think gender inequality is a global issue, not just in South Asia. Till today, Serena Williams is questioned about why she is the greatest athlete or greatest tennis player. They always talk about her being the greatest female tennis player. But she’s probably the greatest tennis player we’ve had.

Mirza is married to Pakistan's former cricket captain Shoaib Malik [Reuters]
Mirza is married to Pakistan’s former cricket captain Shoaib Malik [Reuters]

I’ve had a lot of problems in my life and if I was a guy, I would’ve gotten away with it because that’s just the way the world works. We live in a man’s world and until and unless we accept that and are ready to fight for being equal, we can’t solve that problem.

Al Jazeera: You launched the Sania Mirza Tennis Academy and a grassroots level academy in your hometown. How close do you feel India is to producing another Sania Mirza?

Mirza: We’re actually not as close as we should be. You always see that when you have one big player come out of a country, like it happened in China with Li Na, there are always three or four that follow. India is still waiting for that to happen.

I’m trying to do whatever I can to try and give the experience that I have to try and help kids become the next Sania or even better.

I’m not going to play forever. We have come a long way in tennis. When I started playing, there were hardly any tennis courts. We played on courts made out of cow dung and now we annually host an ATP event in Chennai and have had three cities holding WTA tournaments in the past.

Al Jazeera: You’ve been a groundbreaker of sorts for India. What sort of legacy do you wish to leave behind once you retire?

Mirza: That’s the reason I have a Sania Mirza Tennis Academy and I’m starting something for three-to-eight-year-olds because tennis is way too competitive. Hopefully, we’ll have more Sanias, or better than Sania, come out.

At the end of the day, I hope that people remember me for having fought for being the best that I could be. I’ve been given, by the grace of God, a lot of wealth, health and fame. I hope I’m remembered for someone who tried to fight for the right things, on and off the court.

Mirza and Hingis went on a 41-match winning streak and won three Grand Slam titles as a team [Reuters]
Mirza and Hingis went on a 41-match winning streak and won three Grand Slam titles as a team [Reuters]

Follow Saba Aziz on Twitter: @saba_aziz

Source: Al Jazeera