Meet the Woman Extraordinaire – Sania Mirza


Sania Mirza is the most successful Indian female tennis player in history and the most popular female athletes in Asia. Sania has become an icon in her own right.  In 2005 she was awarded the Padma Shri award and Time Magazine named her as “One of the 50 heroes of Asia“. More recently, Sania has been appointed as the UN Women’s Goodwill Ambassador for South Asia during the event held to mark the International Day To End Violence Against Women on 25th November 2014.

Sania Mirza – describe yourself in one word, followed by, in one sentence. What keeps you going? Describe a typical day in the life of Sania Mirza.
One word to describe myself would be “Easy-going”. One sentence, “I believe in myself and in the things I do, a lot and that’s my biggest strength as a person”.

A typical day for me depends on whether it’s in season or out of season. But it consists of obviously tennis practice and if I am playing a tournament then matches. Otherwise it’s about 5-6 hours of tennis practice every day.

Let’s walk down the memory lane. What was your childhood like? Any particular memory that sticks out? Tell us about your parents, how do they inspire you?
I started tennis when I was 6 years old. I was very young and had started it just as a sport. During my summer holidays I used to swim, play tennis and do a bunch of other activities. We had a lot of cricketers in my family but no tennis players. I was the first girl in my family to pick up a sport – tennis in particular. At that time, we didn’t think I would be playing tennis professionally.

I’ve had a very regular childhood. I was my parent’s only child till the age of 8 years and then I had a sister. So now it’s the two of us. I went to school and had a very normal schooling. I loved studying! In fact, I was quite a geek who preferred studying to playing tennis. My headmistress was the one who persuaded me. She convinced me to go out and play and believed that I had a special talent. That’s when I got involved in tennis full-time and my mum took the initiative. Both my parents got very involved and took pride in every game I played, whether it was under 8, 10, state, national or at the international level. By the time I was about 12-13 years old I knew I wanted this to be my profession.

To become the worlds best at anything it takes a lot of sacrifice. Be it sports or otherwise. I don’t think I could have made it without my parents. I had a very little sister and at one point my mother was needed at both places. Our family was split into halves a lot of times because one was traveling with me and the other one had to be with my sister at home. The whole family has made a lot of sacrifices. Sitting with me at courts all day, traveling with me. We used to travel inter-city in a car because it used to be cheaper at that time. We’ve gone from Mumbai to Trivandrum in a car which took us about 30 hours because at that point it was the cheapest form of transportation for the whole family.  We’ve done all kinds of things to be where we are and every person who gets to a certain position in life will tell you similar stories. Everyone goes through hardships and have special stories to share.

A special memory from childhood – I think there were a lot of memories, not just on the court but off the court as well. I remember as a kid, going to Bangalore was one of my favorite things to do because my favorite uncle lives there. For me to go there and be with family was special. In my early days I had 7-8 of my family members always cheering for me at games. That was special. Those are memories that stay in your life forever.

In particular, winning my first ever tournament was very special. I was 8 years old playing this girl in an under 16 tournament. When I went to play she thought I was really small and asked me to come and play against her in a service box. I thought that was strange but did not say anything. I played against her and won. When I finished I remember she was bawling because she thought I couldn’t hit a tennis ball and here I was winning my first match.  There was a decent crowd of 100 people watching. For me, that was one of my biggest memories and has stayed with me forever.

The Women’s Tennis Association ranks you as India’s No.1 player both in single and doubles. What was (is) the most challenging thing in your chosen career? How did you overcome it?
I don’t think there is something as most challenging. There are lots of challenges that I faced. When I started paying tennis 22 years ago, it was not a popular sport in India, especially for women. I used to have a hard time finding a court to practice in Hyderabad, which at that time was still a small city. A girl from Hyderabad picking up a tennis racket was unheard off. People used to make fun of my parents saying, “What do you think, she will become a Martina Hingis?” My mum used to reply “Yes, I do think she will play the Wimbledon one day”. People laughed it off.

I also faced a lot of social stigmas, the society had a long list of what a girl should and should not do. People used to worry that I will become dark playing in the sun. Who will marry a dark-skinned girl? I used to face all kinds of stereotypes like that, not just from the society but by my own relatives too.

I used to find it very odd hearing such statements even as a kid. We never had a boy in our family. I never felt the need for a brother because my parents never differentiated. My sister and I were never told not to do something that a boy could.

Other problems included finding practice partners, finding courts and the fact that you are fighting against odds in terms of training, infrastructure and expenses. I was earning in Indian Rupees and had to spend in Dollars. As a player one does not make money until one reaches the professional level. So during the Junior Wimbledon I did not make any money, I did not get anything. People don’t realize that tennis is an expensive sport, especially if you want to play it as a professional level.

So there are many problems one faces. As a girl I faced a lot of issues, which I shouldn’t have faced. As a girl I’ve been very vocal about what I feel and my words have always come straight from the heart. While that is great because I am honest and true to myself (and at the end of the day I can sleep on my pillow and have no regrets and my conscious is clear), it doesn’t go down well with a lot of people. They don’t like a woman being so opinionated and strong minded and strong spoken. But hey, that’s life and I wouldn’t change it for anything. I know I’ve been true to myself and I am where I am today because of it.

Is there a woman (in India or international) you would like to trade places with?
As a tennis player I’d love to trade places with Steffi Graff, she won 22 grand slams. But as a person, no! There are great women in this world and everyone is special in their own way but I love the way I am and I’d like to be myself.

In your mind, who is your biggest competitor? What is bigger; breaking into top 50 singles player or being top 5 doubles player consistently? Why? What’s your career dream?
Nobody. I think, everybody is as good as the other. Today women’s tennis is way too competitive and there is too much depth in it to say that there is only 1 person who stands out. We have different grand slam champions almost every time. On the other hand you go into a men’s tournament and one can almost pick that it’s going to be a Roger, Rafa, Andy or Djokovic. But in a women’s game it really can be anyone. Once Serena loses, it suddenly becomes this open draw. So, I think everyone is competition and everyone is healthy competition.

I’ve been 27 in singles, and I’ve have stayed there for 7-8 years, but I don’t play singles anymore. Being number 1 at anything you do is very important, so I do think being No. 1 is my preference. Fortunately I’ve achieved a lot of my dreams. I feel very blessed to have been able to do that. I’m Ranked 3 in the world and I would like to be Number 1 before I retire.

You have always been passionate about women’s issue specially violence against women. How does (has) it affect(ed) you personally?
As a young girl I’ve been facing questions of these sorts. I’ve always found patriarchal issues hard to accept and weird. How can people only worry about skin color when a child is trying to train for a sport and shows talent? It was something as basic as that. I was the only woman playing tennis professionally from such a young age, so I had to fight and beat a lot of odds. The fact that I became a star at a young age taught me that there is inequality in this world. Whether one accepts it or not, it exists. Men used to go out and say there is no inequality at all and the problem with this is, if you don’t accept it you can’t fix it. That’s one of the biggest reasons India and many other countries have not been able to fix the issue of inequality.

The ATP is the men’s association and the WTA is the women’s association. It’s only a few years ago that women and men started getting equal prize money in grand slams and that too after a lot of fights. So the problem isn’t only in India, gender inequality exists globally. Yes it might be more pronounced here in India because we are a bigger country with a lot more people and educational problems but I do think that inequality exists everywhere and we need to accept it not just as women, but as men also.

What is your idea of an empowered woman?
For me, a woman with self-belief is an empowered woman. Sometimes I feel you don’t even need education to empower yourself. You need to believe that you belong and you need to have that within you. To me that’s empowerment. It’s not necessarily speaking good English or wearing certain kinds of clothes or being able to work in offices. That might be a part of empowerment and image building but I do think that real empowerment of a woman comes from the belief within and with the belief that you belong.

Sayfty’s mission is to Educate, Equip and Empower women so that they can protect themselves against violence. What is your message for our readers related to women’s personal safety and the issue of violence against women.
I’ve said this many times and I don’t think we say it enough, yes men make certain women feel unequal or subject them to violence but I also feel, sometimes women don’t believe in themselves. I think it is very important to educate women that they aren’t’ just a baby making machines. We are supposed to be and we do belong here in the same world, outside of our homes that men do. I think it’s very important that you believe and follow your heart.

When I go to schools, I get a lot of questions from young girls who play a sport well but are told by their parents to focus on their studies or get married. But to be honest, I think marriage has nothing to do with what you want to do in life. I’ve been married for five years now and the first question I used to get asked was when are you going to have a baby? Because they think that the first thing a married woman should do is having a baby. That’s what you are supposed to do! I used to reply saying “Do you realize I am still playing competitively? Do you realize that I am not going to be able to play for nine-twelve months if I have a baby.” But that doesn’t even cross people’s minds.

So why am I the one who is supposed to stop, why don’t people ask my husband this question? When I got married I was expected to change my nationality to Pakistani, people would ask me that all the time. Why did they not expect the same from my husband and ask him that question? These are the social things that we have to face because we live in a society. And unfortunately when women speak up or challenge these social norms, like I do, you’re labeled as arrogant or out there or rebellious. These are the three words that women who have an opinion are usually labeled with.

Why am I labeled rebellious?  Because I want to do something that I want to do? So coming back to my point, it’s the self-belief that you belong there and while women can do much to help themselves, men too should take up this cause.

Sania Mirza is a professional Indian tennis player. Sania was born to a Imran and Naseema Mirza in Mumbai. Shortly after her birth, her family moved to Hyderabad. She took up tennis at the age of six. She has been coached by her father and later Roger Anderson. Mirza won 10 singles and 13 doubles titles as a junior player. From 2003 until her retirement from singles in 2013, she was ranked by the Women’s Tennis Association as India’s No.1 player, both in singles and doubles. More than a decade after her debut on the tennis-court, she still carries the torch for women’s tennis in the country.

She is the highest ranked female player ever from India, with a career high ranking of 27 in singles and reaching as high as 3 in doubles rankings. She has achieved a number of firsts for her native country, including surpassing US$1 million in career earnings (now over 4 million), winning a Pro-level title, and winning three major mixed doubles titles at the 2009 Australian Open, the 2012 French Open and the 2014 US Open; as well as qualifying for (and eventually winning) the WTA Finals in 2014. Mirza is also the third Indian woman in the Open Era to feature and win a round at a Grand Slam tournament. She has won a total of 14 medals including 6 Gold at three major multi-sport events, namely the  Asian Games, the Commonwealth Games and the Afro-Asian Games.

In a country where female athletes are few and far between, and where cricket and Bollywood loom large on the cultural horizon, she has become an icon in her own right. For her achievements she has been awarded by the Government of India with the honours of Padma Shri and the Arjuna awards. Currently, Mirza is the brand ambassador for the Indian state of Telangana. She names Steffi Graf and Roger Federer as her tennis idols, and admires Mahatma Gandhi. Sania Mirza has been appointed as the UN Women’s Goodwill Ambassador for South Asia  during the event held to mark the International Day To End Violence Against Women on 25 th November 2014.

Bio Source: Wikipedia, UN Women
Image Credit: Google, UN Women