A question came in the press conference, not too dissimilar to the one asked often of a player on the verge of retirement. But you can always trust Sania Mirza – one of the most quotable and articulate voices in Indian sport – to come up with a thoughtful answer. She was asked what message she’d like to leave for upcoming tennis players, especially young girls, from India. A short pause was all she needed to delve back into her own journey – from when she competed at her first ITF event in 2001 to now finishing her last Grand Slam as a mixed doubles finalist – to find her response.
“Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something, even if nobody else has done it before,” she said with a straight-face under a black baseball cap with the words ‘You can’t handle the truth’ emblazoned on the front. “I, for one, didn’t really have that role model back home in tennis as a young girl to follow and say, ‘okay, this woman has done it or this girl has done it and I can do it’.”
And then she smiled briefly.
“They have that. They have that.”
They have Sania Mirza.
For almost two decades, the 36-year-old – from training on the cow dung courts in Hyderabad to competing on the pristine blue surface at Rod Laver Arena – has set the benchmark.
On Friday, Mirza along with compatriot and one of her closest friends Rohan Bopanna walked onto that prestigious court in Melbourne, but fell short in the final, losing 6-7(2), 2-6 to Brazilian pair Luisa Stefani and Rafael Matos.
Australian Open, mixed doubles final blog: Brazilians win title, Sania Mirza bows out of big stage
This was Mirza’s last ever appearance in a Grand Slam, as she’s set to call time on an illustrious 22-year career when she competes at the Dubai Open next month. And for most of that time, she’d been raising a bar that had never really been set in Indian women’s tennis earlier.
Before her, no Indian woman had reached the third round of a Grand Slam, nobody had won a tour title in singles and/or doubles. Nobody had come close to breaking into the top 100. And then Mirza, the trailblazer, came along and did it all before she could turn 20.
In 2006 alone she beat the great Martina Hingis (former singles No 1), former No 2 Svetlana Kuznetsova and No 3 Nadia Petrova before reaching a career high of 27 a year later. She was seeded in the 2006 Australian Open singles draw.
Injuries forced her to switch to doubles, but she didn’t hold back, winning six Grand Slams and 43 tour titles. In 2017 she struggled with injury and decided to get yet another surgery, but only returned to the tour in 2020 after maternity leave.
Australian Open, Mirza’s Happy Slam
Along the way, the Australian Open became her most successful tournament. It was at the Rod Laver Arena in 2008 where she first reached a Major final, partnering Mahesh Bhupathi to a runner-up finish. A year later in Melbourne the duo went one step further, making her the first Indian woman to win a Grand Slam title. That was the first of six, three in mixed doubles and three with Martina Hingis in the women’s doubles event – which saw her rise to No 1 in the world rankings.
It was in Melbourne, in fact, where she won her last Grand Slam title, in the 2016 women’s doubles event. But on Friday she fell agonisingly short of winning one more.
Yet despite the defeat, she claimed the emotions were only positive.
“I just want to start with If I cry, these are happy tears, that’s just a disclaimer,” said the world No 29 in the on-court interview after the final.
“My professional career started in Melbourne in 2005, when I played Serena Williams in the third round as an 18-year-old. That was scarily enough, 18 years ago. I’ve had the privilege of getting to come back here again and again, win some tournaments and play some great finals. Rod Laver Arena has been really special in my life. I couldn’t think of a better Arena to finish my career at in a Grand Slam.”
And she did come all set to put on quite a show. With her left calf strapped –another reminder of the battle wounds she’s sustained over the years – she was carrying the Indians forward through most of the match as Bopanna struggled to find consistency in his strokes.
That one weapon that has often defined Mirza though, that powerful forehand, did not falter. Be it when she engaged in a cross-court rally against Matos which ended with Mirza powering home an angled winner, to go 40-0 up on her serve at 3-3 in the first set. Or when she forced a break of serve by hammering a shot straight at Matos at the net to draw an unforced error.
But the Brazilians wouldn’t go away. They’d find a way to get another ball back in play, ready to chase down everything they could, and when the chance came, push at the net for a volleyed winner. Such as it was at Championship Point when Stefani poached and smashed an attempted lob that crashed into Bopanna.
That fairytale finish did not happen, but there was still much to cheer about for Mirza.
“I never thought I’d be able to play in front of my child in a Grand Slam final,” she said in the post-match interview.
Throughout Mirza’s career, she’s broken through barriers on and off the court. She’s championed causes unabashedly, speaking up about issues like female infanticide and gender stereotypes. She’s been praised for her efforts, at times unfairly criticised, but she’s done it all on her own terms. And she continues to live by that practice.
“Everybody is like why are you stopping? I just feel there are more important things in life than tennis. My priorities have changed in life, having a son. There are so many things,” she said in the press conference.
“Today I’m here, sitting after a Grand Slam final, knowing that I still have the level to make it to a Grand Slam final. I’m choosing to say that I want other things. I’m able to say that I’m leaving the game on the top. I’m able to say I’m leaving the game because I want to, on my own terms, and that is very important for me.”
As she prepares to walk into the sunset, she does it of her own accord. She’s leaving behind a trail that saw her win six Majors and 43 titles for others to look up to. She may have had nobody to follow, but for the younger guard coming through, as she put it, “they have that.”