MELBOURNE, Australia — “Keep fighting,” Serena Williams said to an 18-year-old Sania Mirza when they met at the net after a match at the Australian Open.
That was in January 2005, and Mirza, strong-minded to begin with, took even more strength from the advice.
A Muslim from Hyderabad, India, who started playing tennis on courts made of cow dung, Mirza became the most successful women’s tennis player in India’s history at an early age but kept pushing for more, experiencing success above all in doubles and in inspiring women from South Asia and beyond to think bigger.
“I hope that I’ve been able to tell young girls and show young girls that they can achieve and do whatever they want in their lives, no matter how many odds are stacked against them and no matter how many times they are told they can’t do it, or it’s silly or it’s stupid,” Mirza said in an interview this week. “I hope that I’ve been able to bring that little mind-set shift where becoming an athlete can be a career option for a young girl, and I mean the first option.”
On Friday, nearly 18 years to the day after that third-round defeat to Williams, Mirza reached the end of her Grand Slam journey: losing in the Australian Open mixed-doubles final with her compatriot Rohan Bopanna to Luisa Stefani and Rafael Matos of Brazil, 7-6 (2), 6-2.
It was a fittingly big stage for a farewell: Rod Laver Arena on a sun-kissed Friday afternoon, even if the stands were far from full. Doubles, even with Mirza in the mix, remains a sideshow to singles.
She and Bopanna, 42, certainly looked the part of veterans: Bopanna a bit heavier around the middle now with streaks of gray in his thick beard; Mirza with heavy white tape on her right calf and more tape on her left leg.
“I looked like a mummy,” Mirza said with a chuckle. “But the fact is, you have to accept that we are on the wrong side as a tennis player, of age at least, and you have to manage your body.”
Mirza, 36, intended to retire at the end of last season but tore a tendon in her right forearm in August and found herself struggling to comb her hair. She decided to come back and then retire, which she will do so after playing two regular tour events in Abu Dhabi and Dubai next month.
“I was like, ‘Well, I can’t have this forearm dictate what I’m going to do,’” she said. “This is part of my personality. It’s very difficult for me to accept being forced to do something, maybe anything. I just cannot be that person. If you tell me to have a cup of tea, I might like to have that cup of tea, but I want to have it on my own terms. That’s just who I am. And that goes into smaller things and bigger things in my life.”
One of the most touching moments of her final Australian Open was her 4-year-old son Izhaan running across the big blue court into her arms after she and Bopanna won their semifinal.
Izhaan is old enough to have a memory of what Mirza has called her “last dance,” and though mothers are extending their careers more frequently on the WTA Tour — see Tatjana Maria, Victoria Azarenka and perhaps soon Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber and Elina Svitolina — parenthood is one of the reasons Mirza is ready to move on.
“It was very important to me that I be asked why I’m leaving and not when I’m leaving,” she said. “I would like to have a quieter life. I would not like to have this grind of doing this day in and day out and want to spend more time with my son, more quality time. I don’t want him to be a nomad traveling for 25 weeks a year.”
She added, “And also my body. I’m pretty beat, and I would like to not feel pain when I wake up in the morning for a change and be pressed on and prodded on and have needles being put in.”
Mirza, who married the Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik in 2010, said this sitting in a small interview room in a building at Melbourne Park that, like so many structures here, did not exist when she first arrived in 2005 with a world ranking of 166. That was too low for direct entry but with the Australian Open eager to build its regional connections and identity, she received a wild card as the top eligible Asian player.
In her debut, she became the first Indian woman to reach the third round of a major in singles, losing 6-4, 6-1 to Williams, and reached the fourth round at the U.S. Open later that year. She was a confident teenager with a big forehand and personality, but injuries and her limited mobility kept her from improving on those results in singles, peaking at No. 27 in the rankings in 2007. Instead, she used her strengths to become No. 1 in doubles, winning six Grand Slam titles, three of them in mixed.
Mirza became a major star in India — she has 10.9 million followers on Instagram (for comparison, Novak Djokovic has 12 million) — but not outside her region.
“What you forget is that Indians are everywhere,” she said with a laugh. “And it’s not just the Indian people, it’s also the people from the subcontinent: the Pakistanis and the Bangladeshis and the Sri Lankans. We are everywhere, and the fact is, when I go to a restaurant in Melbourne, and I walk there, I am stopped here, too. But having said that, it obviously wasn’t as crazy as it was back home.”
In other countries, her tennis results would not have brought her the same level of recognition, but she has been a trailblazer even if no Indian women’s player has followed her all the way down that trail.
“I think Indians looked at her with a lot of pride and a lot of prejudice,” said Prajwal Hegde, the tennis editor for The Times of India and one of the few women covering the sport worldwide. “That’s because of everything. She was a woman. She was outspoken. She was bold. She was daring.”
Since Mirza’s emergence, China has had a first women’s major singles champion as have Latvia, Denmark, Canada and Japan. But India has remained an outsider, despite its 1.4 billion people and rich legacy of men’s tennis players like Ramanathan Krishnan, Ramesh Krishnan, Vijay Amritraj, Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes. No Indian woman is ranked in the top 200 in singles this week. The sleeping tennis giant remains just that.
“I’ve been asked about who is next a lot, a lot,” Mirza said. “And I’ve always come up empty with that answer unfortunately.”
She agrees that it comes down to structures and said that all the Indian players, men or women, who have risen high in the game agree that they have done it “despite the system, not because of it.”
For Mirza, “we are a cricketing nation, but we are not really a sporting nation.” But she intends to keep contributing to the tennis effort: through her eponymous academies in Dubai and Hyderabad.
But she is not quite done playing yet, even if her Grand Slam days are done, and on Friday, as she took to the microphone after her last final in Melbourne, she choked up but pushed on, flashing back to facing Williams.
“That was scary enough 18 years ago,” she said. “And I’ve had the privilege to come back here again and again.”
She did not quite go out a champion, but she has been one, on her own terms.
“I think if I had to pick one attribute of Sania, it’s that she was fearless,” Hegde said. “She was just born that way. At every stage there have been obstacles: from the clothes she wore, to the way she played, to the way she looked, to what she said. There was always this tendency to try to make her like everybody else, like other women.
“It was not the India of today. She came well before her time, and she came at a time when it was not OK to be you. You had to conform. But she told everybody it was OK: to sit how you want, wear what you want, do your thing, do anything.”
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