Sania Mirza: The girl who fought for the right things

Sania Mirza wants to be remembered as the girl who fought for the right things. Photo by Lauren Bacho/Getty Images

Sania Mirza wants to be remembered as the girl who fought for the right things.

Like the cap she wore after finishing her Grand Slam career at the Australian Open as a 36-year-old -- 'You can't handle the truth' -- or the T-shirts she made famous as a teenager -- 'You can either agree with me or be wrong' -- her answers usually have a short but straight-shot message.

Sania Mirza is a fighter. Not just on court, where she's a seasoned competitor down to her final Grand Slam. But also off it.

"When an Indian woman athlete achieves something, they are not only fighting on court or on the field, they are also fighting their odds off the field because of the kind of high-pressure, societal mindset," she tells ESPN in a candid chat ahead of the final tournament of her storied career.

There are certain universally acknowledged truths about being an Indian woman in sport: Casual sexism and pointed questions, ranging from your choice of clothing to that of unconventional career.

For Sania these barriers were amplified, not just due to her gender but also her religion and then her marriage to a top Pakistani cricketer. She faced an evolved version of the garden variety sexism most Indian (sports)women face.

And she fought it with a spunk that redefined what it meant to be a modern Indian sportswoman. An Indian woman even, as so many girls grew up watching her hold her own with a racquet, and with words, in a way no Indian athlete had before.

Fighting for the right things. While being forthright. Winning consistently. Is this her biggest legacy as she heads into retirement?

"A lot of people ask this question, and I find it strange because do you really think about yourself as a legacy?"

A classic Sania Mirza remark. The embodiment of the oxymoronic eloquent quip. You've heard these for years. Sania has always been one of India's most well-spoken and witty athletes, as well as being an Indian tennis GOAT.

"If I do think about how I want people to remember what I did or who I was, I would say definitely the things that I've achieved yes; I was World No 1 and India was number one in the world for two years."

"But I would like people to remember that this girl fought for the right things. She believed in herself when nobody else did. No matter how many odds were against you, she didn't think that those odds were enough, she always thought that you can fight those odds.

"These are the kinds of things that are more important to me, everything else goes without saying... winning Slams and being No 1."

To truly appreciate the greatness of Sania Mirza, you have to see her on-court achievements via her unique set of off-court obstacles.

Picture this:

You are 18 years old. Making your main draw debut at a Grand Slam and playing Serena Williams. Nerve-wracking and exciting.

Later that year, you're one of the country's biggest sporting icons already. The first Indian to win a WTA title, playing in the second week of a Grand Slam against Maria Sharapova. A huge moment for an entire nation.

You are 18 years old and a group of Muslim clerics have issued a fatwa against you for wearing 'indecent' clothes - the very work attire that has seen you make history for India.

You are 18 years old and you cannot leave your house without a security detail. Anything you wear is scrutinised. You are asked questions that none of your peers have to answer.

To be thrust into this position at a very young age was like walking the thin line between a feather on her cap and millstone around her neck. How does a teenager cope with this out-of-the-ordinary burden when already carrying the weight of being a pro athlete and a role model?

"It would be a lie if I said that I never felt the weight..."

"We are all human and I think people tend to forget sometimes that just because we are athletes and doing such high pressure jobs. But I think for the most part of it, I embraced it. Being put in that position of a high pressured situation on and off court in the moment might have been tough, but I think it's made me who I am."

Her next line paints the full picture, answers a question so many have asked.

What made Sania Mirza who she is?

Winning titles, dealing with trolls, speaking her mind when silence may have been easier.

"Everything is correlated. You can't take the good from the bad or the bad from the good, you have to take everything together. So if those things didn't happen to me, I don't think a lot of other things would have happened either, in terms of my personality, of who I became, the following that I had."

If these many instances of probing and prejudice is what fuelled her personality, then she had more than enough ammunition available to her in her two-decade career in the Indian sporting spotlight.

When Rajdeep Sardesai, one of India's most respected journalists, asked her about 'settling down' while interviewing her about her autobiography in 2016 and she promptly served a lesson like an ace: "You sound disappointed I'm not choosing motherhood over being number one in the world. But I'll answer your question anyway, that's the question I face all the time as a woman, that all women have to face - the first is marriage and then it's motherhood. Unfortunately, that's when we're settled, and no matter how many Wimbledons we win."

When dealing with constant jibes on her patriotism due to her marriage with Shoaib Malik... and handing all of it with grace while winning medals and trophies for India.

When taking a maternity break and making a successful comeback with her infant son in tow, who even faced a visa issue. Indeed, one of Indian tennis' bright spots -- qualifying for the Fed Cup Playoffs for the first time ever in March 2020 -- came after Sania became a mother.

When even having to issue a statement to clarify her remarks on pre-marital sex because that was something asked to an athlete and an innocuous answer led to effigy-burning.

She now jokes about the situation... she never knew how a certain odd question would be twisted to make her words click-bait. Back in the noughties, before the full-scale spread of social media, she got prime real estate in print media... but not always for her tennis achievements.

How does one even prepare for a situation like this, when you're supposed to be preparing to play on grass and clay courts?

"I had to cope with it. So I didn't really have a way of dealing with it. The only thing that my parents always told me is that be true to yourself, to who you are. That's the formula that I still use, and in the process, there are people that don't like me and there are people that love me."

To borrow a cliché: Love her or hate her, you couldn't ignore her. The 2000s 'Sania Mania' was as constant a feature of the Indian sports consciousness as the biggest cricket stars.

In her next innings, Sania wants to pass on her hard-earned experience to others, specifically the next generation of Indian women who come into an ecosystem that is more inclusive, but no less discriminatory.

The first step is being a team mentor with RCB for the first-ever Women's Premier League.

"People have been asking what's next and I was actually looking for an opportunity like this, where I'm able to help younger generation of athletes from our country in dealing with situations that I've experienced," she says.

"This is what something I want to do... I'm making a difference and I'm so excited to meet the girls, to share my experiences of how I felt during moments when I know the entire country was watching."

"When we started talking to our RCB, I said I don't know anything about cricket and they said that's not what we want you for. We want you to come and help them with your experience of how it feels to be to be someone in the spotlight, to have that pressure on you, that much money and so many sponsors riding on you."

A role tailor-made for Sania then.

The whole country watching is not an exaggeration in her case. In a nation obsessed with cricket, Sania carved out a space for women's tennis single-handedly. In an increasingly polarised society, she stood strong despite criticisms to be a national symbol of female excellence and confidence.

From a junior Wimbledon champion to the world No 1, from a teenager to a mother, her journey was under the spotlight and at every stage and she shone through it all with a personality as standout as her forehand.

That India is yet to see another player so successful in tennis is another matter; her on-court career was legendary even without any of her off-court battles.

At some point, Sania Mirza became an emotion that resonated with a vast and diverse section of people in India. She was synonymous not just with Indian tennis, but women's sport in India. When an aunt learnt I covered tennis, her first question was, "have you spoken to Sania?"

As she speaks freely ahead of what will be her final tournament -- a retirement on her own terms that she went the extra mile to ensure -- the sangfroid that made Sania who she is emerges clearer than ever.

"Authenticity, I don't know if that's a mantra... I am just authentic as possible. I try and wear my heart on my sleeve and sometimes what I'm feeling on my T shirt and hats," she smiles.

One of these infamous T-shirts said decades ago -- 'Well behaved women seldom make history.' Sania did make history, in a way that changed the meaning of who a well behaved Indian woman is.