From Olympics to Grand Slams, here’s Sania Mirza’s amazing tennis debuts
India’s finest women’s tennis player of all time, Sania Mirza, has been responsible for many firsts in Indian tennis.
To name a few, the Hyderabad-based tennis star is the first Indian woman to win a WTA title, reach No. 1 in WTA doubles rankings, break in the top 30 in WTA singles rankings or to win a Grand Slam. Each of the high points in her illustrious career, however, had a point where it all began.
It had its roots at an ITF event in Chandigarh in 2001 when as a 15-year-old, Sania Mirza made her debut on the senior circuit. Entering the tournament as a wild card, she faced fellow Indian tennis player Geeta Manohar, who was three years senior to her. Sania Mirza won the match 6-0, 6-1 and kicked off her career.
Here, we traverse through almost two decades of Sania Mirza’s incredible tennis career. It highlights all her major debuts, including at Grand Slams, Olympics, WTA, Commonwealth Games, Fed Cup and Asian Games.
Sania Mirza’s Olympics debut – Beijing 2008
A three-time Olympian and a mixed doubles semi-finalist with Rohan Bopanna at Rio 2016, Sania Mirza’s first test on the Olympic stage was at Beijing 2008.
Coming back from a three-month injury layoff after a wrist surgery, Sania Mirza’s Olympic debut came in the women’s singles event on August 11, 2008.
It was a tough draw for the 21-year-old Sania. She faced Czech Republic’s Iveta Benesova, a player ranked higher than her.
The least I can do is to give it my best. Grand Slams happen maybe 30, 40 or even 50 times in your life but the Olympics happen just once in your lifetime and if you are lucky, then maybe twice or thrice.
Up against Benesova, a lefty, Sania, with a dodgy wrist, struggled to get her famed forehand going and dropped the first game. The Czech wrapped up the first set 6-1 in 32 minutes.
In the second set, Sania Mirza began with vigour, covering the court well and keeping the ball in play to make things difficult for Benesova.
She broke the Czech’s serve for the first time in the match to take a 1-0 lead but her opponent struck back to make it 2-1.
With her wrist injury flaring up around the 46-minute mark, Sania Mirza had to retire hurt. A teary-eyed Sania left the court with her parents - father Imran Mirza and mother Nasima Mirza - and Mahesh Bhupathi by her side.
“I had always wanted to do well for India at the Olympics, and the opportunity had been snatched away,” the Indian tennis player had later recollected.
Sania Mirza’s Australian Open debut - 2005
Sania Mirza’s first-ever Grand Slam match was in the 2005 Australian Open against Cindy Watson.
Then just 18, the Indian was a wild card entry in the tournament. Up against a local favourite nine years her senior, the Indian was visibly nervous.
She made several unforced errors and struggled with her first serve in the early goings and lost the first set 6-3.
Sania was down 3-2 in the second set when she made a tactical move to shun powerful strokes and engage in long rallies.
That proved to be the turning point of the match as it forced Watson into making errors of her own. Sania Mirza took the next four games to win the second set 6-3 before stepping on the gas to take the decider 6-0.
I was quite tight in the first set and was also down a break in the second set. But I was hitting the net and not long or wide. Then I concentrated on making her play, and it worked.
With the victory in her debut Grand Slam match, Sania Mirza became the first Indian female tennis player to reach the second-round of a Grand Slam tournament since Nirupama Sanjeev did it at the same event in 1998.
Sania would only go on to better that as she upset Hungary’s Petra Mandula 6-2, 6-1 in the second round.
She set up a third round clash against Serena Williams and exited the tournament after a 6-1, 6-4 loss.
It was at the 2009 Australian Open that Sania Mirza, with partner Mahesh Bhupathi, won the mixed doubles event – the first of her six Grand Slam titles.
Sania Mirza’s French Open debut – 2005
Later that year, Sania Mirza stepped onto the hallowed clay of the Roland Garros for the 2005 French Open where she faced Argentina’s Gisela Dulko – then ranked 32 – in the first round.
Much like her Australian Open debut, Sania Mirza was slow off the blocks and found herself 5-1 down in the first set. The Indian fought hard but Dulko wrapped up the first set 6-3 in 35 minutes.
Sania fought back in the second set and briefly led briefly before Dulko managed to find a way to overcome the Indian’s groundstrokes that had lost sting on the red clay. By resorting to a lot of drop shots, she out-slugged a tiring Sania 6-3 to win the contest.
Sania Mirza’s Wimbledon Championships debut - 2005
The Indian ace’s senior Wimbledon debut saw her take on Japan’s Akiko Morigami in the first round. She had already won the Wimbledon Girls' Doubles title in 2003.
In what was her first-ever match against the experienced Japanese, Sania Mirza made a strong start and cruised to a 5-1 lead in the first set.
Akiko Morigami, however, fought back to make it 5-3 but the Indian served home the set 6-3 in the ninth game.
The second set witnessed a toe-to-toe battle till the Japanese broke the Indian in the eighth game to make it 5-3. Sania Mirza tried hard but finally lost 6-3.
The Indian was on the back-foot right from the start in the decider as she was broken in the very first game. With the Japanese holding a 4-3 lead going into her serve in the eight game, Sania Mirza dug deep to break her service and clawed her way back to make it 4-4.
What followed was a marathon, as both players engaged in long rallies and held serve.
It was the younger Sania Mirza, who finally came out on top and clinched the decider 8-6 and the match with a trademark forehand return.
I played a bit patchy at times and it could have gone either way. In the end, I am glad I came through.
The win set her up for a second-round clash against Svetlana Kuznetsova – then the world No. 6. Sania Mirza eventually lost to the Russian after three sets in what was a hard-fought match.
The All England Club, however, was the venue which marked Sania Mirza’s first women’s doubles Grand Slam title. She won the 2015 event with partner Martina Hingis.
Sania Mirza’s US Open debut - 2005
At her maiden US Open later in 2005, Sania Mirza strung together what would be her best singles Grand Slam run of her career.
Drawn against American Mashona Washington in her first match, Sania Mirza was up against a veteran who turned pro when the Indian was just eight-years-old.
Sania Mirza was nursing a muscle injury heading into the tournament and the US-player only made things harder for the Hyderabadi.
In what was a topsy-turvy first set, Sania Mirza held her nerve to win 7-6 (8-6) after staying calm and composed during the tie breakers.
In a similarly tightly contested second set, Washington got the better of the Indian after negating her powerful strokes with her own variation and strong net game.
Sania Mirza bounced back in the third, breaking her opponent’s serve early but Washington fought back to make it 3-3.
With the match finely balanced, errors from her opponent, finally swung the tie in the Indian’s favour as she won 6-4.
Sania Mirza reached the fourth round of the tournament, beating Italy’s Maria Elena Camerin and France’s Marion Bartoli before finally bowing out after a loss to Maria Sharapova.
“She is great for the sport. She has a great future ahead of her and has a big game,” Sharapova noted about the then 18-year-old Sania Mirza after their contest.
Sania Mirza’s Asian Games debut – 2002
Probably Sania Mirza’s favourite hunting ground, the Indian tennis player boasts of Asian Games eight medals.
The first, a mixed doubles bronze, came in her debut appearance at the continental showpiece in 2002 in Busan (South Korea) as a 15-year-old Sania Mirza partnered Leander Paes to represent India.
The unseeded pairing was up against top seed Japanese pair Shinobu Asagoe and Thomas Shimada in the second round.
The teenager showed signs of nerves early but with Paes guiding her on the court, she soon recovered. With the Olympic bronze medallist taking the lead, the Indian teenager backed her senior partner with elan to score a 6-3, 6-3, upset.
“She didn’t show any nerves and returned quite well... The best thing about her is that she is a quick learner,” Leander Paes observed of her young partner.
The duo went to win the bronze – Sania Mirza’s first major tennis medal.
WTA, Fed Cup and Commonwealth Games debuts
In 2003, Sania Mirza made her WTA debut at the Indian Open in Hyderabad. Her first match was against Australian Evie Dominikovic. The youngster made a bright start against her much-fancied opponent but eventually lost 6-2, 1-6, 2-6.
Later that year, Sania Mirza would go on to represent India at the Fed Cup, the women’s equivalent of the Davis Cup. Her debut in the tournament was against the Philippines’ Francesca La’o on April 21. Sania Mirza won 6-2, 6-3.
Her first Commonwealth Games match, meanwhile, was against Cook Islands’ Brittany Teei in the 2010 edition in New Delhi.
The Indian second seed notched up a comfortable 6-2, 6-0 win en route to a silver medal.