India rarely discussed Sania Mirza’s tennis. It’s a sad commentary on a nation that aspires to be sporty but doesn’t invest much time to understand the nuance of sports. It’s also a comment on a country that does celebrate the triumph of its women athletes but ignores their skill-set. Had India tried to understand Sania’s tennis, they would have understood her better, gauged her impact on Indian sports.
It’s not that Sania went unsung but her core competence went under-appreciated. That ferocious forehand of hers – she once hit a 102 mph return of serve at Australian Open – didn’t get the Indian sports fans heady like when a young pace tearaway delivers a 100-kph ball.
In a land that believes in hyping every small cricketing blip, Saina’s forehand, once seen as the most fearsome on the WTA circuit, didn’t get the praise and popularity it deserved. If not the Tendulkar straight drive, it certainly deserved the iconic status bestowed on Sehwag’s brutal cut shot.
It’s because Saina transcended beyond the tennis courts way too quickly. Very early in her career, India, in its excitement of unearthing a rare women’s tennis talent, hoisted her as a gender-warrior and a progressive Muslim girl from Hyderabad. Later in life, she would be the symbol of India-Pakistan bonhomie and a Super Mom. Her detractors, too, haven’t bothered to watch her strokes and dissect her game. They have been busy commenting on her attire, trolling her mercilessly and floating fake news about her.
“My professional career started in Melbourne… I couldn’t think of a better arena to finish my [Grand Slam] career at.”
We love you, Sania ❤️@MirzaSania • #AusOpen • #AO2023 pic.twitter.com/E0dNogh1d0
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 27, 2023
Cricketers often complain about personal attacks and encroachment of their private space, Sania could tell them a thing or two about being the target of stalkers, gossip-mongers and degenerates. Being in the spotlight can get irritating, especially when you are seen as a perennial newsmaker but the conversations around you aren’t about the sport you play.
Except for the country’s small tennis community, Sania’s court-craft was never hyped or questioned. Did she have the best forehand on the women’s circuit? Should she need to work more on her fitness? In doubles, should she stick to the ad-court or shift to the deuce side? Like those heated debates about the batting position of our superstars cricketers, the street corners or fan forums never got acrimoniously divided over what Sania did on court.
This isn’t how sporting nations treat a trendsetter. Social media has a habit of calling every odd-ball a ‘game-changer’ but Sania was the real deal, she well and truly changed the game.
Before Sania, women’s tennis was mostly about testing the patience of the rival. Majority of the contests were between serenely slow servers. There would be long baselines rallies where the tennis balls would draw parabolic arcs across the net. These tranquil hits, rather lobs or tosses, went by an apt name – they were called the moon-balls. Sania hit the courts like a ball of fire, the Sun that made the moon-ball disappear beyond the horizon.
A 90s child, Sania grew up watching Steffi Graf. The multi-Grand Slam winner was known to go all the way around her backhand to blast the ball past the rivals. The little girl from Hyderabad would try to be like the German legend. The coaches would object but Sania was too stubborn, too sure of what she was doing.
She got unconditional support from her parents – Naseem and Imran. The three would often travel in their diesel car, hopping from one tournament to another. This way Sania could play more tournaments and, at times, even avoid hotel bills.
It was this unflinching belief of her parents that gave Sania the gall to let that forehand of hers rip regardless of the match situation. Back in 2005, just after her historic third-round loss at Australian Open, Sania played a WTA event in Kolkata. It was the time when a fringe organisation had issued a fatwa, threatening her with consequences if she didn’t “dress properly.”
Sania, still in her teens, walked on the court like a rock star. Hope that day had brimmed over from the court onto the stands. There was freshness, cheerfulness and energy of youth. Kolkata saw on court a certain courageous carelessness that is the preserve of the young.
Sania wasn’t bothered about the noise outside the court nor feared unforced errors. If she got a ball on the right side of the court, she would whack it with all her energy. In her facile 6-2, 6-2 win over Japan’s Junri Namigata she gave the home fans a glimpse of her fabled forehand — that had created a buzz globally.
Sania had three types of the forehand – the one with which she returned serves, the other she hit from the baselines and the last one, the most eye-pleasing of them all, was the ball-smashing whack she unleashed from the centre of the court.
As a rule, Sania, regardless of the scoreline, would go for winners when receiving the serve. For this she would bend her knees, let the racket reach the height of the ball and dispatch it with minimum backlift. The one from the back court was the classic – measured steps towards the ball, a roll of the wrists and the ball flying too close to the net-cord. Her treatment of the short ball was the most savage. Sania would approach the ball like a boxer, wait for it to bounce and land a sucker punch.
Thank you,@MirzaSania for teaching an entire generation of young Indian girls how to dream, I was one of them. You have always played with enormous passion throughout the challenges. Your legacy means a lot to Indian sportswomen. Respect and congratulations!!! ✊🙌🇮🇳 pic.twitter.com/C6ZFhKuKar
— Vinesh Phogat (@Phogat_Vinesh) January 27, 2023
Though it was lost on most Indians, this was a rare show of unbridled aggression by an elite Indian sportswoman. She didn’t freeze on important points, she wasn’t ultra cautious, she didn’t second guess, so sure of herself she wasn’t afraid to push the envelope and set a new template.
On her final day at a Grand Slam, it came to light that the Sania story had also left behind an inspiring sporting legacy. Despite being busy in her fight against the powerful WFI president, World Cup medalist wrestler Vinesh Phogat doffed her hat to a tennis champion walking away from the spotlight.
“Thank you, @MirzaSania for teaching an entire generation of young Indian girls how to dream, I was one of them. You have always played with enormous passion throughout the challenges. Your legacy means a lot to Indian sportswomen. Respect and congratulations!!!”
Sania taught young sporty girls to be feisty, both on and off the field.
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