With just over two weeks to go before the Rio Olympics begin on August 5, Sania Mirza is a busy person. The tennis world No 1 doubles player started her day with practice at 8 am, after a late night shoot. The 29-year-old could train only for an hour before Mumbai’s monsoon showers turned up typically uninformed. She then went for another shoot for a magazine, before attending the official launch of her autobiography Ace Against Odds in the city.
In between, she also squeezed in some interviews. “I haven’t had lunch today. Just chai and some breakfast,” she said at the book launch, staged in a suburban five-star hotel and attended by Bollywood superstar and close friend Salman Khan. Not that she’s complaining about it. It was, after all, “one of the biggest days of my life”.
Mirza has had quite a few big days in the last two years. What started with her third major title win – the 2014 US Open mixed doubles title with Brazilian partner Bruno Soares – ended with a 41-match unbeaten streak in women’s doubles with Swiss comeback queen Martina Hingis and the world No 1 ranking. This included three majors – 2015 Wimbledon, 2015 US Open and 2016 Australian Open – in women’s doubles, apart from a runners-up finish in the 2016 French Open mixed doubles, with new partner Ivan Dodig of Croatia.
At 29 and at the top of her game, Mirza could have bigger days in the future, starting with the Rio Olympics, where she is one of India’s biggest medal hopefuls. She is competing in both the women’s doubles and mixed doubles categories, with partners who are obviously not Hingis and Dodig, but the expectations back home are still the same. Mirza caught up with Scroll.in for a quick chat to discuss her book, her career, her future and her sport.
Sania, you were India’s first female youth sports icon and you rose to fame in the mid-2000s. Ten years from then, how much do you think women’s sport has progressed in India, if it has?
I really do hope it has progressed a little bit. I think it has, over the last, not just 10 years, but 20 years, when I started playing. I think the fact that we have so many women athletes who are well known names like Mary Kom, Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu [proves it]. I don’t think we could have named five women athletes who were that well known maybe 10 years ago. Like you said, I was the first, so it was very difficult to name any more after me at that point. Before me, it was PT Usha who was really big and someone everyone had heard of. So it’s a big change from one to five, or six, or seven well known women athletes that we have. Do we have space for improvement? Of course, we do.
What do you think is lacking in terms of promoting women’s sport today?
I think we don’t come from a sporting culture in general, whether it is for girls or boys. We treat sports like more of a khel and a play, like, ‘Let him go out and play.’ We are a cricketing nation and not a sporting nation – there is a difference in that. But I think that in general that’s one of the things that holds us back – that we are not a completely sport-endearing nation where we just want to make sport our profession and make it all right to be a B-grader instead of an A-grader in school. I think parents always want their child to be an A-grader – that’s our culture.
Don’t get me wrong, we have improved a lot, but I still think we have a long way to go. We also certainly need a better system in place in every federation, probably, in every single sport. We need more people who know really how to make it. In cricket, we have amazing champions, so they always have someone to look up to, but in other sports we have maybe one or two and then we have a gap of maybe 20 years. It doesn’t really help and, so, when a system is in place, it is a lot easier for kids to learn.
It’s interesting you speak of the gap. Now, there is this fear that once you, Leander Paes and Rohan Bopanna retire, there will be a big drought in Indian tennis. If you see the next ranked players after you three, both in singles and doubles, they are Divij Sharan at No 96 in men's doubles and Prarthana Thombare at No 198 in women's doubles. Do you think it’s a matter of concern?
Yeah, I mean the fact that you take my, Leander’s and Rohan’s name in the same breath, it actually kind of defeats the purpose because Leander and I have a gap of 15 years between us. Even Rohan is 36 years old, and I’m just 29. So that’s another full generation between us that we’re talking about. It’s just that I’ve played [for so long]. The problem is that we had a huge gap when it came from a Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan, especially in singles. After them it was just me who made it to the top 30 in the world, whether it was a man or a woman. That gap is very large and we can’t afford one if we want to keep tennis’s legacy going, so to say, which is why I’m trying to do whatever I can. I know Mahesh [Bhupathi] is too with his academy and I am with my academy. That’s also one of the reasons why I’ve written this book, so that there is a base for some young people to pick it up and say, ‘Listen, this is what they have done and gotten to this place and maybe we can try the same thing.’
Is there anyone in your academy that can become India’s next tennis great?
Well, Prarthana Thombare, who is going with me to the Olympics, actually plays at my academy. She is the only other [Indian] woman who has won a women’s doubles Asian Games medal. That’s never happened before. There are a couple more girls who are pretty good – Karman Kaur Thandi is very good. She is 17 and doing the right things and she, Prarthana and Ankita Raina are our next big hopes.
There’s been a lot written about you writing an autobiography at 29, but do you think that people forget that you started so young? You won your first Asian Games medal when you were 15...?
Yeah, I think they really do and it’s normal because I’ve been around for so long. I think people see me and think that I’m probably 40, but I’m not (laughs). I came on to the scene so early in my life and, like I always say, I grew up in the media. I grew up in front of the whole world, so I think they kind of forget how old I am. But, I’ve been saying this, I’m so fortunate to be able to write a book and have so much to say at the age of 29 already.
Do you think you can play as long as Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, and maybe have space to write another book?
I don’t think so. I don’t think I can play as long as Mahesh and Leander. I played a lot of singles in my career and I was top 50 and top 100 for a long time in singles and doubles. My body has been through a lot of battering...and three surgeries (laughs). Having said that, I don’t know how long I want to play for, but I know that I don’t want to retire anytime soon.
India produces great champions in doubles, but there is no one coming up in singles. Is it just down to stamina? You said once in an interview that Indians don’t have the genetics to play singles.
It’s not just down to that, but that’s definitely one of the reasons. Again, it comes to the sporting culture. I think people forget that tennis, with golf, is probably the most competitive [individual] global sport in the world. There’s no other sport in the world with more than 180 countries competing. It’s a little different when you have champions in other sports and it’s a little different with tennis. So, when people say that, ‘Oh, she is not even top 100 in the world,’ being in the top 100 in tennis is extremely, extremely respectable. You can make a very good living out of it. But in other sports, being just in the top 100, it’s difficult to make a living. So, I don’t think I want to repeat myself, but it’s the sporting culture, it’s the system, it’s also not having enough facilities and coaching and training at a very early age, and also, I believe, some part of it is down to the genetics.
This Olympics and the last one, when talking about Indian tennis, have been clouded in controversy with regard to the team selection. How difficult is it getting over that and actually focusing on the game when the day arrives?
Well, I think that this time around it’s been a lot quieter than it was last time and gladly so. But last time I think we went into the Olympics in a big mess and it was difficult to actually put our minds [to it] and we were emotionally quite drained. But this time I think it’s been pretty good. We’re well prepared and we’re looking forward to it.
Do you have any ultimate goal in your career in terms of winning a certain number of majors or do you just take it one day at a time?
There’s no ultimate goal, but I would like to be No 1 as long as possible and I’d like to win as many Grand Slams as possible. I would be honoured if I can finish my career still being No 1. I think it’s easier to stop when you’re fading away, but it’s much tougher to stop when you’re No 1.