On an unnaturally busy Sunday afternoon, a room on the first floor of the Forbes India office resembles a war zone. In one corner is a stack of clothes—all high street—from which dresses are being pulled out in turns and sorted into piles of approved and rejected. On a table, a make-up kit jostles for space with hair brushes, curlers, stylers. In the room, about half-a-dozen people fuss over a 28-year-old to prep her for a photo shoot: Open hair or ponytail, smoky eyes or neutral, blue gown or orange, high heels or pink flats. And the mandatory “let’s take a break and pose for a selfie” pause. Once that’s out of the way, the room roars back into action. As clothes get juggled, hair sprays tossed about, mirrors positioned and repositioned to perfection, I squeeze in the question, “When do I start the interview?”
“Anytime. I’m ready,” says Sania Mirza, tennis player, champion and a rare Indian sportsperson outside of cricket to achieve superstardom.
Her booming forehand may seem to be her most lethal weapon, but an even bigger poise and confidence beats her cross-court whiplash any day. She can spend the entire day locked up in dressing rooms, vanity vans and photo shoots, yet manage to look Bollywood-glamorous at an awards ceremony barely hours later. Next morning, she can get back on her feet before much of Mumbai, and head to another shoot, Instagramming her wish for a “nap to last another 12 hours”. Once done, she gets ready to jet-set between two cities in as many days before flying off to Dubai to celebrate her birthday.
How does she do it? “My tennis defines who I am. When you know you are good at something, it’s a real confidence-booster,” says Mirza.
A little while later, Mirza is called in for the Forbes India shoot. She gets into the zone like a pro. As the photographer instructs “left foot forward”, “hands on your hip”, “chin up”, “look into the camera”, Mirza nails every shot with the precision of her ripping forehand. One moment, she emotes a youthful exuberance, the next, the steely look of a Wall Street banker. The photographer also wants her to pose with her racket pointed towards the camera. But she demurs. “These shots don’t work. I’ve seen them in other shoots,” she says.
In Mirza’s own words, she was never this confident as a kid. Smart, yes, but extremely shy, the kind who would never volunteer to answer questions in school even if she knew them. She also didn’t want to play tennis—which started as a hobby during summer vacations and snowballed into a major distraction—as her attendance in school would nosedive. “It was my headmistress, the late Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi’s sister, who persuaded me to go out and play,” says Mirza.
Soon she figured out what Shrikant, her first coach at Hyderabad’s Nizam Club, had already discovered when she was six: That she was way better than other kids her age. In fact, before she turned 10, Mirza was beating seniors hands down. “When I was eight, I was winning under-14s; when I was 12, I was winning under-16s. I stopped playing juniors (under-18) when I was 15-16 because I had already reached that level,” says Mirza, who bagged her first senior international laurel a month shy of 16, winning a mixed doubles bronze along with Leander Paes at the 2002 Asian Games in Busan. Turning professional the next year and playing her first WTA tour event at her hometown was the logical next step.
In just over a decade, Mirza, a three-time Grand Slam mixed doubles champion, has scripted several firsts for Indian tennis: She became the first Indian woman to win WTA singles and doubles titles (the AP Tourism Hyderabad Open in 2005 and 2004, respectively), Grand Slams, reach the top 50 in singles and surpass $1 million in career earnings.
Mirza’s achievements look particularly spectacular in the Indian context, where women’s tennis has always taken the backseat. Here, men—Ramanathan Krishnan, the Amritraj brothers, Ramesh Krishnan, Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi—have had the more fancied careers. This is unlike in the rest of Asia, where the charge on the global stage has mostly been led by women—think Kimiko Date-Krumm, Ai Sugiyama, Zheng Jie and now Li Na—and the likes of Paradorn Srichaphan and Kei Nishikori are considered exceptions.
The best that Indian women achieved in the pre-Mirza era was when Nirupama Vaidyanathan made a second round appearance at the 1998 Australian Open and reached a career high ranking of 134. Mirza outdid Vaidyanathan’s Grand Slam record in the 2005 Australian Open, making it to the third round, and did one better later that year, reaching the fourth round of the US Open. On her way to a career high singles ranking of 27 in 2007, she notched up wins against notable top 10 players like Svetlana Kuznetsova and Martina Hingis.
Despite the hoopla that phase generated, it is 2014 that Mirza is unlikely to forget in a hurry. Her decision to quit singles in 2013 and focus solely on doubles stands vindicated as she rammed through the calendar, winning five WTA tour titles, the US Open mixed doubles, and a bronze and a gold at the Incheon Asian Games. She capped off the year with her historic win with Cara Black at the WTA Finals, ending 2014 as the No 6 doubles player in the world. In her victory, she bridged the gender divide in Indian tennis, equalling the feat of Vijay Amritraj, the only other Indian to have ever won the prestigious season finale in 1977. Perhaps it’s only fitting that UN Women has chosen her to be the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the South Asian region.
Enrico Piperno, a former Davis Cupper and noted coach, sensed Mirza’s spunk in the late ’90s, when she was barely in her teens. Piperno, then the travelling coach of Bhupathi, met her for the first time at the French Open when she was playing the junior tournament. “I remember this girl walking up to us, looking at me in the eye and asking, ‘Sir, do you think I can hit a few balls with Mahesh?’ I thought this girl had some guts. Even at that age, Sania Mirza was unlike other Indian girls who would typically prefer to hide in one corner,” says Piperno.
In 2000, when he took over as the Fed Cup captain and had Mirza as a practice player for the first year, a brief hitting session with her left Piperno with sore wrists. “She was hitting from the baseline and I was at the net volleying. The ball was coming out of her racket like a missile. When I went back to the tour with Mahesh [Bhupathi], I told him that this 14-year-old hits a forehand harder than both him and Leander [Paes].”
Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Mirza’s former doubles partner and her best friend on the tour, agrees. “She will play an aggressive game against anybody. She knows her opponents will be expecting a fierce forehand, but she’ll be unfazed, knowing well that she can hit winners with ease,” says Mattek-Sands, the 2012 Australian Open mixed doubles champion.
Svetlana Kuznetsova, then the reigning US Open champion, got a taste of India’s own ‘Fraulein Forehand’—a label that belongs to Steffi Graf, Mirza’s role model—during the 2005 Dubai Open. Mirza, a wild card entrant, beat Kuznetsova in straight sets and, as Incheon Asiad squad coach Zeeshan Ali puts it, “took the Sania phenomenon to an entirely different level”.
“I was running a tennis academy in Dubai then. It was for the first time, after Mirza beat Kuznetsova, when we had more girls than boys registering for tennis lessons and planning to turn pro. That’s what Sania Mirza has done for women’s tennis,” says Ali, himself a former Davis Cupper.
Mirza has hit the headlines as much for her exploits on the court as much for her life off it, even though, as Bhupathi, her partner in two Grand Slam wins, puts it, “a lot of it has been for no rhyme or reason”. Muslim clerics issued fatwas against her un-Islamic court outfits that “leave nothing to imagination”. Her effigy was burnt, while she was at the peak of her career, for having propagated safe sex. Her patriotism has been brought into question time and again for sitting with her feet up next to the Tricolour; for turning up in her tracksuit for the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony that began just after she had returned from practice; and, in 2010, for marrying Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik. The last made her the butt of a host of sexist Indo-Pak jokes and the recipient of the tag of “Pakistan’s daughter-in-law” that, as a BJP leader pointed out recently, made her unfit to be the brand ambassador for Telangana.
“When I shot to fame in 2005, people were a little surprised and shocked to see an 18-year-old doing so much. It was fine to watch Venus and Serena Williams on TV. To accept the same thing with someone closer home wasn’t ok. At one point, talking about my forehand and backhand was just not enough,” says Mirza.
When the going got tough, the injuries got going. Mirza had her first knee surgery in 2006, but what got her down was a wrist surgery in 2008. “After that, I never felt the same,” she says. In fact, the wrist got worse in 2010, making her contemplate an early retirement. “For 2-3 months, I could not even comb my hair or pick up my phone, forget a tennis racket.” She spent six months in her room, shutting out the world. “Those were the most depressing months. Thankfully, I had a wonderful support system of family and friends around me. This period also helped me realise that tennis is just a part of my life, not the entire life.”
Change, however, was around the corner. The Commonwealth Games in Delhi and the Asian Games in Guangzhou revived Mirza’s trademark confidence. She won two medals in each tournament. The wrist also started feeling better. “Maybe the wrist just wanted to avoid the tennis racket for six months,” she chuckles.
The months away from tennis, perhaps, also made letting go that much easier. Consider that when she had another knee surgery in 2011, she chose to scale down to scale up: Quit her singles career to keep playing doubles. Vijay Amritraj doesn’t endorse her move, but Mirza looks at it as a choice between playing for another five years as opposed to never playing again. “In one of my last singles tournaments in 2012, I beat three top 100 players. The next morning, I woke up with a swollen knee and could barely walk,” she says.
But doubles meant starting from the bottom of the learning curve. Again. Throughout her career, Mirza had battled a weak serve-and-volley game. With a lot of doubles being played at the net, she knew she needed to improve and move up to the net more often. If her 2014 US Open-winning mixed doubles partner Bruno Soares is to be believed, she has already checked all those boxes. “She positions herself well at the net and defends well. Sania is a complete doubles player,” he says.
Soares particularly remembers the US Open quarterfinal against Rohan Bopanna and Katarina Srebotnik. With both teams having won a set each, the match went into a deciding tie-breaker, where Mirza won four consecutive points and put them in the lead. “It was after that match that I realised that we had the firepower to win the tournament.” In the semifinal against Yung-Jan Chan and Ross Hutchins too, the Brazilian was playing far from his best, having lost the men’s doubles quarterfinal the same day. “Mirza supported me as I wasn’t moving well. She is a great team player and is one of my favourite girls to play with,” says Soares.
It also helps that she is extremely positive on and off the court. Her mantra for bouncing back is to never brood over losses. “When I was young, other parents would ask, ‘How come she never cries? Doesn’t she care enough?’ But I knew there was always a next time,” says Mirza. The switch-off mode helps at times. For instance, after squandering nine match points and losing the second round ladies doubles match at 2014 Wimbledon, she just forgot about it for a week and did “anything that took my mind off the loss”. Shopping, for one, is a great healer (“I have way too many pairs of shoes and sunglasses”). Or meeting The Big Bang Theory actor Jim Parsons (“Even in real life, he talks exactly like Sheldon on the show”).
But, once in a while, the floodgates open. Like the 2010 Commonwealth Games (CWG) final loss to Anastasia Rodionova of Australia. “I’ve never lost to her before and I’ve never lost to her later. After the final, I bawled my eyes out. People were consoling me but it just didn’t help,” says Mirza.
It’s this human side of Mirza that often remains elusive to the public. You can match Paes to emotions, but standoffish and aggressive are the words that are tagged to Mirza. She seemed to reaffirm such convictions when she protested against being used as a “bait” to appease Paes before the 2012 Olympics, when both Bopanna and Bhupathi refused to play with him. The All India Tennis Association promised Paes that he would get to partner Mirza in mixed doubles without getting her consent. But people who’ve known her for years repeat a cliche to explain her: Don’t judge a book by its cover. “She is somebody who calls a spade a spade. With her, there’s no beating around the bush,” says former tennis player Zeeshan Ali. “It’s easy to deal with such people because you don’t have to second-guess them constantly. Once you get to know her, you realise what a nice person she is.”
There wouldn’t be too many 28-year-olds who could look back at their life with as much satisfaction as Mirza. Having started from a non-metro city (Hyderabad wasn’t the cyber hub then that it is now) and trained at home entirely (both Bhupathi and Paes have had stints abroad), Mirza has more than proved a point on the global stage.
As for the future, she has her eyes firmly set on the doubles No 1 ranking and a women’s doubles Grand Slam. But she doesn’t like to plan beyond that. “I live in the present. When I got married, I had thought I would quit tennis and have a family. Look at me now. That’s why I never plan. I take things as they come,” she says.
Of course, an Olympic medal would be the cherry on the cake. The Rio Games in 2016 would possibly be her last chance at that. But here’s the catch. With no doubles partner of her calibre to back her up, her chances are limited to the mixed doubles category. “If she couldn’t win a doubles gold in the Asian Games, Olympics would be very tough,” says Ali.
Mirza, however, is unlikely to give up on a tough ask. Especially if she continues to be at her confident best. Because then, as the last year has shown, failure is not even an option.
(This story appears in the 26 December, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)