Aisam-ul-Haq and Rohan Bopanna’s tennis partnership has won many hearts across the nations and worldwide.
India’s top tennis star Sania Mirza has seen a fair share of controversies on her way to fifth in the doubles rankings and three Grand Slam mixed doubles titles. Her life as a Muslim Indian girl keen to reach the top of the tennis world has often been subjected to criticism off the court.
In a chat with Al Jazeera, Mirza shares how she keeps her mind on the court, why she has chosen this life and the unfinished business of reaching the top.
Al Jazeera: You’ve had your fair share of issues off the court – politicians, media and religious leaders criticising and delivering verdicts. Your performance graph has gone up recently though. Has all that spurred you on?
Sania Mirza: What’s happened has happened. I’m winning because I’m playing well and that’s about it. I don’t really play to prove anything to anyone. I play because I love playing tennis and I love competing. I love to win for myself, for my family and for my country. What happens off the court, I’m pretty good at leaving that outside the court. I can do that thankfully. And it doesn’t really bother me.
The reason I think that media and others takes interest in people’s lives off the court is because it can sell their stuff. If I don’t win tennis matches, no one will want to write about me and no one will care. That’s how it works. If I wasn’t achieving, I don’t think people will care. You wouldn’t be taking my interview either. That’s basically how it works.
AJ: Does all the off-court stuff wear you down?
SM: I’ve had to deal with stuff more than other athletes… for whatever reasons. It happens when you’re a groundbreaker at some level, you’re the first to do so many things. It happens. Maybe it has happened to me more than normal but I’m pretty good at shutting myself out when I’m on the court.
Everything positive and negative that comes from tennis – or not from tennis – you have to take it. But there’s a price you pay for being famous. Would I change my life? No. If you take the pros, you need to take the cons. Everyone loves the part of being famous but there are also cons to it… which are these. So that’s life.
AJ: You have a fair share of fans across the border in Pakistan. Will there be a time when you go and play there?
SM: There’s nothing happening in Pakistan. What am I going to play? I’ll play if there’s a tournament and if it fits in my schedule. I’d love to play in India but there are no tournaments in India either and that’s why I don’t play there. Unfortunately in the subcontinent, there are no big enough tournaments. If I’m ranked fifth in the world, I’m not going to play a $25,000 tournament.
I think Aisam and Rohan, what they did was amazing for the sport. For us, religion, countries or race, that’s the last thing we think of. At the Olympic Village, for example, we all stayed and ate together. And that’s the amazing part about sport that it brings everyone together.
AJ: How much has Indian tennis progressed since you started playing?
SM: When I started playing 22 years ago, at the time, a girl playing tennis was unheard of in India. Hyderabad was a very small city at that time. Things have changed a lot. We’ve now had WTA tournaments, the Commonwealth Games and the Afro-Asian Games.
But when I was young, I don’t remember any tennis player who was as famous as me now. There wasn’t much there. We’ve had so many cricketers because we’ve had amazing stars and amazing champions in that field. But in tennis, we’ve not had many. Tennis is not something that comes naturally to Indians and subcontinent people. It’s a luxurious sport.
But it has improved leaps and bounds from even 10 years ago, since 2005 when I made my breakthrough. The face that everyone knows who I am is a big deal for tennis in India. People follow tennis now.
AJ: Why then do we not see a lot of Indian female tennis players breaking through?
SM: It beats me why we don’t have more girls coming through. I’ve been in the Fed Cup for a very long time. Girls that were older than me and even those who were younger than me back then, they’ve all stopped playing. There’s a new crop now. I don’t know why they don’t go to the next step. Maybe it is lack of funds. Culture could be part of it but it’s not the main reason. It has a lot has to do with the right planning, right coaching and the right guidance.
Would I change my life? No. If you take the pros, you need to take the cons. Everyone loves the part of being famous but there are also cons to it
Anything that doesn’t have a cult following in any country, it’s tough to have an infrastructure for it. You compete against people who are in the sport at the age of six and with high- performance trainers. We start working when we are 16 or 17 and we realise we are really slow on the court or not fit enough.
I do think it has improved a lot. There’s an Indian girl who is 240 I think. It’s the first time since I came onto the scene that someone has cracked the top-250 maybe. She’s 21 and hopefully she will do the right thing.
I’m always there for guidance and that’s what I tell them all the time.
AJ: You are ranked fifth and have won three Grand Slams. What do you want to achieve before retiring from tennis?
SM: I’m very fortunate to have the career that I’ve had over the last 12 years. If you are number five in the world, you obviously want to try to be number one. You’re that close. You feel like you belong there and you should be there. It’ll be a pity if you get that close and don’t really get to number one. That’s a dream for every tennis player when he or she picks up a tennis racket as a six-year-old.
Faras Ghani is a sports journalist at Al Jazeera English and author of the book ‘Champions, again’.
He tweets @farasG