Sharada Iyer, Tennis With An Accent
On Friday, January 27, Sania Mirza played her last major-tournament match. In what was a deserved coincidence, her last match happened to be the Australian Open mixed doubles final. Unfortunately, Mirza and her partner, Rohan Bopanna, lost to the Brazilian team of Luisa Stefani and Rafael Matos. In itself, the loss could be considered disappointing. However, given the occasion, the outcome of the match was secondary. What was more important was how Mirza handled the emotional highs that came with the run to the final.
Understandably, Mirza was in tears as she talked about her career.
“Disclaimer, if I cry it is happy tears,” she said. “I don’t want to take away the moment from Matos-Stefani who have deserved this,” adding, “I’ve had the privilege to come back here again and again, and win some tournaments and play some great finals.”
These two sentences summed up Mirza’s professional journey across two decades. Like her and Bopanna reaching the mixed doubles final but coming up short (though not for a want of trying), Mirza’s career is littered with instances when she had to face various barriers at different stages, both on and off the court.
Many of these obstacles were overcome by taking them head-on. The other few, she got past by simply moving aside as though deeming them not worthy of either her time or effort. Of course, she learned to defuse some tensions by getting out of the way after having realised the more confrontational approach wouldn’t work everywhere and that she didn’t need it to use it as a default setting.
In that regard, the version of Sania Mirza we have seen is the person who has had to forge a distinct identity for herself – just to be herself, on and off the court. Now, since her retirement is almost here, there’s a certain romanticising of what the 36-year-old brought to the sport, especially in her home nation of India. The country’s tennis audience is looking back at her successes and triumphs through coloured glasses.
Tinted pink, these glasses glorify Mirza’s numerous Slam titles, her rise to the top as the world’s best women’s doubles player, and her achievements on the singles circuit before injuries closed that chapter of her career. The problem is, these glasses weren’t coloured in such a rosy way in past years. Not when Mirza was coming through the ranks and definitely not when she was at the peak, despite the limitations that came her way.
Recounting instances of how pettily she was treated – as a person and a player – would require a list of annotations. If these were the emotional injuries she received for choosing to play tennis, the insults came in the form of expectations that she be the bigger person when it came to acknowledging such behaviour. For a while, it also seemed that this was to be perpetuated in a never-ending cycle. She always had to bear the burden in a dispute, often if not always without getting the benefit of the doubt.
Today, Mirza is referred to as an inspiration for youngsters to look up to. For many, she’s also the person who was unfazed when standing up to bullies and antagonists who are now more fashionably called, ‘trolls’. That is now seen as an accomplishment itself.
But, here’s the thing: Mirza didn’t want any of that. All she wanted was to focus on the game, win matches, win tournaments, and make her career stand out as best as she could before moving on when she felt the time was right. If she were to get a chance to redo it all as a tennis player, who’s not to say she wouldn’t want to do this without any external interference or unwanted, uninvited controversy?
Circumstantial imposition of tribulations – from outside forces and other people – on an individual athlete such as Mirza is unfair to begin with. Then altering one’s description to what suits the moment years later doesn’t give credit to the outsiders who put Mirza in a narrow box; instead, it reflects on the society that brought this on.
In case of Sania Mirza, the lone – and biggest – credit to her is cushioned between all the attempts to bring her down and prop her up. Ultimately, she did end her career on her terms. She played a lot. She won a lot of matches as she lost some. Throughout her journey, she didn’t lose perspective of what she was doing – as a tennis pro and a person, and most of all, as a woman.