The whirl of noise and hype that follows Sania Mirza everywhere she goes makes it easy to forget she is genuine trailblazer on and off the court.
We remember the t-shirts with the slogans – “Well behaved girls rarely make history” and “You can either agree with me – or be wrong” – and the hoopla over her marriage to Pakistan cricketer Shoaib Malik, when some had the temerity to question her patriotism because she married a man from across the border.
What we forget is that no Indian women’s tennis player has done what she has done – in doubles and singles. No one even comes remotely close. She was the first woman to win a WTA event of any kind, the first to be ranked inside the top 50, top 40 and top 30 in singles and the first to win a Grand Slam.
“Hands up all those who believed India’s next grand slam fourth round player after Ramesh Krishnan in 1987 would be a girl with hoop earrings from Hyderabad,” Rohit Brijnath wrote in Sportstar in 2005. “No one? That sounds about right.”
Her elevation to the best doubles player in the world is the only the latest in a long list of accomplishments. And she has achieved it all while unabashedly challenging conservative views that hold a woman should stay at home and if she doesn’t, she certainly should not dress the way Mirza dressed on court.
There was even a fatwa issued against her in 2005 by the Sunni Ulema Board, which demanded Mirza play tennis in long tunics and headscarves. “”She will undoubtedly be a corrupting influence on these young women, which we want to prevent,” Haseeb-ul-hasan Siddiqui, a leading cleric of the board, said at the time.
A female tennis player wearing shorts? Oh, the horror!
Mirza needed a security detail when she played in Kolkata next, telling the New York Timesin 20013 that “I couldn’t leave the hotel room without informing about five different people. And even when I did, I had a car in front of me and I had a car behind me. I had a guy sitting with me.”
The only people Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi had to protect themselves from were each other.
Mirza’s career high singles ranking was 27 – higher than either Leander or Bhupathi – and she had the potential to break into the top 20. But three surgeries – on her wrist and both legs – put paid to those aspirations.
“More than sacrifice, it was more about my body. I had a couple of conditions in my body that I couldn’t cope anymore and it was just about when I would get hurt again,” Mirza told the WTA after getting to the top of the rankings.
“I had to reset my goals and one of my goals was to become No. 1 in the world.”
That she got there this year owes a lot to her talent, tenacity and perseverance and a little bit to luck. “When me and Martina decided to play together, we were going through some rough patches with our existing partners and it was just timing that we came together,” she told the WTA.
They initially agreed to play one tournament together and see how it went. They have since won three on the bounce and are yet to lose a match as a pair. Mirza admitted she didn’t expect to get to No. 1 so quickly this year and said she benefited from Hingis’ familiarity with being the top ranked player in the world.
“She helped me when I got down, when I got a little tight. It has made a huge difference”
Their win in Charleston is Mirza’s 26th in doubles and she now has her sights firmly set on filling the one gap in her trophy cabinet. “It is just about winning a women’s double slam,” Mirza said.
At the same time, Mirza showed she hasn’t lost sight of what matters.
“I hope it [reaching No. 1] sends the right message and parents let girls do what they want to do. Majority still believe there are certain dos and don’ts for a woman and for a girl what she should and shouldn’t do, culturally.
“I feel this is a way of saying you gotta let the girl do what she wants to do.”
More than her accomplishments on the court, it is Mirza’s ability to see beyond the tramlines that is her greatest legacy. It is time we looked past the hype and hoopla and celebrated her victories on the court, and her speaking out off it.