From write-off to World No.1: Sania Mirza’s tale of redemption
Sania Mirza is a trailblazer for women's tennis in India. While the country had produced a fine array of men’s tennis players since the 1970s, from Vijay Amritraj to the likes of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi — who have won 18 and 13 Doubles Grand Slams respectively — it lacked a bonafide female superstar for the longest time. Mirza’s arrival at the turn of the century finally changed that.
The 33-year-old has won six Grand Slam doubles titles in her illustrious career, and while her achievements in tennis are well-documented, what is seldom mentioned is how injuries almost derailed her career just as she was entering her prime as an athlete.
And when adversity struck, and many believed the nation’s bright and beaming hope in women’s tennis was fading, Mirza refused to play along with that narrative.
Returning with a purpose, like she did so often on the tennis court, she climbed atop the pinnacle of the doubles rankings, becoming the first Indian player to do so in the 21st century.
While she was an excellent singles player early in her career, what made Mirza a household name in India was her women’s doubles triumph alongside Russian tennis player Alisa Kleybanova at the Wimbledon Juniors in 2003.
She continued her steady rise in the women’s circuit throughout the mid-2000s, while also achieving a number of firsts for an Indian female tennis player. At the 2005 Australian Open, Mirza became the first Indian woman to feature in the main draw of the singles’ category and won her first and second-round matches to set up a clash against the legendary Serena Williams, where she was beaten 1-6, 4-6 against the eventual champion.
Barely a month later, Mirza created more history in her hometown after beating Ukranian Alona Bondarenko in a three-setter at the Hyderabad Open, becoming the first Indian female tennis player to win a WTA title. At Flushing Meadows later in the same season, Mirza reached the fourth round of the US Open, where she was beaten 2-6, 1-6 by then-World No.1 Maria Sharapova.
Her excellent campaign earned her the 2005 WTA Newcomer of the Year award, previously won by the likes of Serena and Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters and Sharapova. Then, in 2007, Mirza reached her peak singles ranking of 27, the highest till date for an Indian in the WTA and ATP rankings.
Through the mid-2000s, Mirza continued working her way up the women’s circuit. 2004, in particular, was a spectacular season for the then-18-year-old, as she won ITF singles tournaments in Boca Raton, Campobasso, Wrexham, Hamstead, and twice in Lagos.
Early in 2005 at the Australian Open, Mirza became the first Indian woman to feature in the main draw of the singles’ category and won her first and second-round matches to set up a clash against Serena Williams. The Indian wildcard fell 6-1, 6-4 against the eventual champion, but her performance only boosted her ever-rising stock.
Over the next two years, Mirza not only failed to win a singles title but also failed to go beyond the first round on four occasions. As her performances slumped and injuries started to mount, many questioned if Mirza could continue playing tennis, let alone do it at the elite level that the nation had become accustomed to seeing her at.
While many wrote her off and declared that she was past her best, Mirza tossed the script out of the window and conjured an incredible comeback.
While her singles career hit a snag, Mirza was on the rise as a doubles player. She won her maiden mixed doubles Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in 2009 alongside veteran compatriot Bhupathi, beating Nathalie Dechy and Andi Ram in the final. The pair dropped just one set enroute to the title.
She made it to the women’s doubles final at the French Open in 2011 and won her second mixed doubles Grand Slam title with Bhupati at the event the following year. Mirza continued her strong showing as a doubles player in 2013, winning a couple of titles with Bethanie Mattek-Sands, two more with Cara Black and one with Zheng Jie. Her success on the doubles circuit, coupled with the injuries, prompted Mirza to retire from singles competition altogether so she could focus on her doubles career.
At the Australian Open in 2014, Mirza, alongside Horia Tecau, finished runners-up in the mixed doubles and enjoyed another strong year, winning four titles alongside Black.
Top of the world
Entering 2015, Mirza was ranked sixth in the women’s doubles rankings. After winning the 2015 Apia International in Sydney with old partner Mattek-Sands, Mirza paired with the legendary Martina Hingis and the duo went on to embark on one of the most dominant runs of 21st century tennis.
They won on their debut in Indian Wells before sealing up the Miami Open too and maintaining their 100% win record. They then headed to Charleston to compete in the Family Circle Cup and dominated the competition en route to their third successive title.
This win propelled Mirza to her career best rank of No.1 in doubles, making her the first Indian tennis player to achieve that feat since Paes. Reaching the mountaintop was hard enough, but staying there would require even more wins, and that is exactly what Mirza continued to do.
The Indo-Swiss pair entered Wimbledon that year as one of the favourites to go all the way and did not disappoint. Ploughing their way through the competition without dropping a single set, they reached the final, where they met Russian pair Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina, who had already captured two Grand Slam titles together.
The match was a classic. The Russians took the first set 7-5 but Mirza and Hingis levelled the score by winning the second set 7-6 in a tiebreaker. With the game tied at 5-5 in the decider, rain intervened, further adding to the drama of the contest. When play resumed, the Mirza-Hingis pair broke serve, giving them the opportunity to serve for the title. Hingis held her serve to love and after two hours and 25 minutes of intense tennis, Mirza and Hingis won their maiden Grand Slam title as a duo.
The duo entered Flushing Meadows as the top seeds and proved just why, winning the US Open title without dropping a single set. They won three more titles before the WTA Tour Finals, where they started as favourites and the dominant duo won the title with ease, making it nine titles on the year.
Their month-and-a-half long stay Down Under at the start of 2016 yielded three titles, including the Australian Open, making it three straight Grand Slams for Mirza and Hingis. They went to Russia and captured the St. Petersburg’s Ladies’ Trophy before losing in the Qatar Open, which ended an unprecedented 41-match winning streak. The duo split soon after, ending what was a highly fruitful partnership for both.
Mirza though soon found a new partner in Barbora Strycova and won the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati and the Toray Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo. Those two tournament wins for Mirza were split by another one with her friend and old doubles partner Monica Niculescu in the Connecticut Open. Mirza won eight titles in 2016 with three different partners and ended the season as World No.1 in the doubles rankings.
The in-form Indian kicked off 2017 with a title win, this time with another old partner — Mattek-Sands — defending her Brisbane International crown which she had won in 2016 alongside Hingis.
Mirza’s participation in the WTA tour was limited for the remainder of the season as she struggled to find a steady partner, and injuries didn’t help either. She slipped to 12th in the doubles rankings, and while many expected the six-time Grand Slam champion to make her return in 2018, she announced in April that she and her husband — Pakistani cricketer and former captain Shoaib Malik — were expecting.
Having won every Grand Slam title at least once in her illustrious career, as well as the WTA Finals, Mirza has accomplished nearly everything in the game. That said, there is still one accolade that has eluded the six-time Grand Slam champion — an Olympic medal
A veteran of three Olympics, Mirza’s best finish was fourth, which came at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio alongside Rohan Bopanna. Now, the 32-year-old is aiming at a return to tennis at Tokyo 2020, and while she has nothing left to prove, an Olympic medal will only further her legacy as one of the nation’s greatest athletes.