Sania Mirza won another round in the mixed doubles on Sunday morning and made it to the last eight of the Australian Open, the event that was to introduce her to India and the world seventeen years ago. Now that she's announced that 2022 is going to be her final season and this her final Australian Open, the first thought is: Damn Covid, what Sania deserves is a farewell Tour. That would be vintage Her, in unapologetic Diva mode. Soaking in the lights and the applause, waving to the crowds, even allowing herself a 360-degree turnaround twirl.
She will always be Sania, in first person familiar. Like Sachin or Virat. Her career has straddled those two generations of Indian sport and it's possible to argue that its impact, in its own time and its own way, carried a bolder message. Sania is in her 21st year on the tennis tour, aiming to last the season if her body holds out. For Indians under 30, she has always been around, a badass former world No. 1 doubles player, winner of six doubles Slam titles (three women's doubles, three mixed), a celebrity, a social media storm. Now married to a Pakistani cricketer, mother to a 3-year-old and still the target of toxic trolls but sailing over their filth with the sangfroid of an well-timed eyeroll. Like her T-shirt once said, "Whatever."
"The first decade of the 21st century marked the emergence and the coming of age of the Indian woman athlete and Sania was its leader. Its free-spoken, undaunted, unfiltered Numero Uno, Alpha Female."
In July 2018, a rough audit of the Twitter accounts of India's leading non-male-cricketer athletes had Sania at No.1 with 8.39m followers. Her fellow Hyderabadi Saina Nehwal was second at 7.75m. Today Sania is at 9.1m (8.7m in Instagram), Saina at 8.5m (1.5m Insta). These numbers are not a reflection of sporting performance per se, but also indicate public profile and marketability. In Sania's case, her presence at the top of these popularity charts reflects her longevity and the strength of her public recall. Often these numbers, when they start climbing, can blur a bit of the back story but in Sania's case, to understand the magnitude of her influence on Indian sport, the back story needs to be told over and over.
The first decade of the 21st century marked the emergence and the coming of age of the Indian woman athlete and Sania was its leader. Its free-spoken, undaunted, unfiltered Numero Uno, Alpha Female. Well before the onset of social media, likes, followers and anonymous psychos.
Her name was always mentioned around Indian women's tennis through the late 1990s as a player whose game belonged to a far higher plane than we imagined. Her winning the national Under-14 and Under-16 singles titles in 1999 before she turned 13 and her success on the ITF Circuit in juniors to seniors was part of the news cycle, though on the fringes of the Leander-Mahesh doubles drama.
"She was plainspoken, audacious, quite unlike anything Indian sport had dealt with from its elite women."
Only after her breakout year in 2005, during her Grand Slam debut at the Australian Open, was the true weight of Sania's tennis and the stamp of her personality felt by her countrymen. Sania was to make, at first attempt, the third round of the Australian Open, where she went up against Serena Williams, at the time six-time singles Grand Slam winner then and world No.7. At one point in the match, we saw Serena moved end to end on the baseline, doubled over, out of breath; at another, there was Sania hitting winners of angle, pace and ferocity. In Indian tennis terms, that howitzer forehand belonged not just to another plane, but to another planet.
My career as a journalist had begun watching women trading moonballs at the Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association in the early 1990s; to witness an Indian woman play tennis of this calibre was like seeing the parting of the Red Sea. The next time I was struck by a similarly unexpected, uplifting barrier-breaker sight in Indian sport was when the Dipa Karmakar Produnova video appeared in 2014.
Along with Sania's tennis came the personality, which in song could have run 'No woman, no shy.' She was plainspoken, audacious, quite unlike anything Indian sport had dealt with from its elite women. Then came T-shirts of A-grade sassiness churned out one after another at press conferences, training sessions, elsewhere. "Well behaved women rarely make history"; "I am cute? No S***"; "You can either agree with me or be wrong"; "Don't Get In My Way."
You laughed and applauded but naturally she made the conservatives furious. The first time I spoke to Sania for India Today magazine, it was about her tennis, herself, and her freaking people out. She was 19 at the time, talking on a phone line from somewhere in the world with an unnerving clarity. She said, "Some say Muslim girls shouldn't wear mini-skirts, others say I've made the community proud. I hope God will forgive me later on in my life ... but you have to do what you have to do." That was not a Sania T-shirt slogan, it was a Sania fact.
In an age of escalating post 9-11 Islamophobia, she was label-proof. An articulate, young Muslim woman athlete, secure in her body and its many identities, ready to call out hypocrisy. "Why am I asked about my religion?" she asked a western journalist on one occasion. "It would be fine if every other player was asked the same question." Sania made the cover of Time magazine's South Asia edition as one of Asia's Heroes in their 2005 year-ender. The conservative New Statesman magazine called her one of the 10 young people who could change the world (but you had to say, okay, not even she's buying that).
What was evident was the onset of Saniamania, which also brought with it threats and warnings. For a while, she travelled with bodyguards, had a Madhya Pradesh court issue summons over a photograph, clarified comments about pre-marital sex that had sent fundamentalists across faiths into hypermanic frenzy and stopped wearing those incredibly witty T-shirts.
"Sania found a way to stay above and beyond their cesspit, playing her tennis and living life on her own terms."
What never stopped was the ascent of her tennis and her profile; Sania was in the top 35 for four straight years, and inside the top 100 for another four. She hit a career-high ranking of 27 in 2007 at a time when shrill, sensation-seeking news TV was beginning to find its lungs in India. She attracted attention and controversy, about how she sat, what she wore, who she hung out with, what she said or didn't say. Into her 20th season of pro tennis, the bile is still coming her way, the misogyny and bigotry amplified via social media hate speech.
Sania found a way to stay above and beyond their cesspit, playing her tennis and living life on her own terms. Today she is counting down to when the curtain falls. Her legacy is being talked about, the doubles world No.1 and her Grand Slam titles are impressive, joyful achievements. Yet, that's not quite what she is or was about. Every Indian tennis player of this millennium, man or woman, who aims to be bigger and better than Sania Mirza, must get to No. 26. That's the bar she's set, that's her legacy right there: 27, over and above the noise. Beat that. You have to do what you have to do.