During a press conference at the Australian Open, Sania Mirza talked about how her peers were surprised that she was set to retire. Mirza, now 36, is not on a decline in terms of her performances. And she proved it by reaching the final of the mixed doubles event in Melbourne in what was to be her final appearance at a Grand Slam.
She’s competing at a high level and matching the physical, mental and technical requirements to feature at that stage. But there’s no convincing the six-time Major winner to change her decision. For, the harsh effects of the grind – which she has been a part of for a career that has lasted 22 years – have started to take their toll.
“I’ve been really struggling with my body. Not many know, I’ve been playing with a torn meniscus for over a year now,” she said in an interview with Scroll. “I had gotten a steroid injection just before the clay season, but now that is wearing off slowly. My knee is hurting quite a lot and I’m actually on painkillers for the last couple of months, with playing the amount I have, especially in Australia.”
There are no second thoughts about finally hanging up the racquet once she’s done playing the Dubai Open next week. It’s a ‘last tournament’ that is coming much later than what she had initially planned. After the Australian Open last year, Mirza had announced that the 2022 season would be the last, only for an injury to derail her participation in the second half of the season.
But true to her nature, she was ready to fight it out a little longer to make sure she would get to walk off court the way she wanted to. On her terms.
“When I made that decision, I had not spoken about it to anybody at home. So everybody was very surprised. When I came out, they were like, ‘oh, you said it in the press conference.’ I was like, ‘yeah, I felt it,’” she said.
“And that’s the person that I am, I like to do things on my own terms. For me at that point, I said ‘this is going to be my last season’, which was to be the entire year, but I could only play till mid-August because I hurt my elbow. For me it was just not acceptable to stop playing tennis because of an injury. It was not something I was okay to do because that’s the person I am, it goes deep into my roots as to where I want to do things because I want do them, not because somebody is telling me or something is forcing me to do it.”
Reaching the Australian Open mixed doubles final last month, with compatriot Rohan Bopanna as partner, just further confirmed her belief that she was leaving the sport while she was still at the top.
“I’m glad because I’d rather go when people ask me ‘why’ (am I leaving) rather than ‘when.’ I don’t want that ever happening,” she added.
“I want to know for myself that I’m leaving the game at the top, knowing that I’m leaving on my own terms. Those are decisions that are harder to take. It’s easier to say I’m not playing well so I don’t want to play anymore.”
Through the course of her career, Mirza was no stranger to firsts. She became the first Indian woman to reach the third round of a Grand Slam, the first-ever to win a singles and doubles WTA tour title, win a Grand Slam (she won three in mixed doubles and three in women’s doubles) and was even world No 1 in doubles. Yet despite the accolades that have been peppered across her over-two-decade career, she has been plagued by injuries that have forced her to go through numerous surgeries.
The love and willingness to compete has never waned, but over the years her priorities have changed. Especially after she gave birth to her son Izhaan, now four.
“For me, I am trying to prioritise things and my priorities are different now. I don’t have the will as much – it’s not zero – to put my body and put myself emotionally and mentally through that grind everyday. I know what it’s taking me to be playing at this level. People just see the out-result of it, but the kind of work that’s going in behind to actually be there and to compete at that level, I just don’t have the will to do it anymore. My priorities are just different,” Mirza said.
Stepping away from a sport that she first started playing professionally in 2001, though, won’t be easy. Yet she said that while on maternity leave, she got a glimpse of what life could be like away from tennis.
“I think I had a bit of a preview of that when I got pregnant and I was away from the game for a couple of years. Yes, the emotions were a bit different because I had never really announced retirement, and I had happy emotions of being pregnant and looking forward to that part of life,” she said.
By no means though, she asserted, is she going to be severing ties with the sport just because she’s calling time on her playing career.
“Tennis is not something that is going to go away from my life. It’s still going to be a huge part of my life. Just because I stopped playing professionally doesn’t mean I want to stop being involved in it, whether it’s commentary or even academies or just helping out. Last week, Karman (Kaur Thandi) and Yuvan Nandal were here and they were practicing with me at one of my academies. And I was actually hitting with them for a couple of hours a day and having a lot of fun.
“I would love to do things where I can make a difference in any way possible. Maybe I’ll feel the void of competing.”
But that void won’t kick in for one more week. While she is already exploring new avenues by taking up the mentor role for Royal Challengers Bangalore in the Women’s Premier League, Mirza will partner American player Madison Keys, the current world No 23 in singles, at the WTA 1000 event in Dubai. And after that, Mirza will call time on a glittering, trail-blazing playing career.
But she will do it just the way she’d like it. On her terms.