India’s top-ranked female tennis player Sania Mirza may be a formidable opponent on the tennis court with her racquet, but she’s racked by the same doubts as any multi-tasking mother grappling with work-family conflict.
“There are days when I feel I don’t do enough as a mother and there are days when I feel that I don’t do enough as an athlete. It’s very difficult to balance it. A mother’s guilt is real,” said Mirza in an exclusive interview over Zoom with Gulf News.
At the time of this interview, the six-time Grand Slam winner was still preparing for her Wimbledon Championships 2021 in London (from which she crashed out of, along with Rohan Bopanna) and also for the pandemic-delayed Olympics 2020 in Tokyo that kicks off on July 23.
It was already 4pm, but the Dubai-based sports icon was yet to have lunch despite putting in hours of intense tennis practice. She had skipped lunch to squeeze in this interview and wanted to spend the remaining time with her two-year-old son Izhaan Mirza Malik before he went to bed. Their routine includes her putting him to bed or else her toddler stays up until she’s home to tuck him in; a practice that she admits she cultivated, much to her annoyance, but one she enjoys thoroughly.
“The scary part is that our children probably don’t even remember that we left them for two hours or two weeks, but it’s more about how you feel as a mother. When this whole issue was going on, Farah Khan [Bollywood director and ace choreographer] who has three kids of her own and is like an elder sister to me said: ‘Just follow your dream’. And I believe in that,” said Mirza.
And she’s following her dreams, but with a racquet in one hand and a stroller in the other.
“In the long run, I think my son is going to be more proud of me because I followed my dreams rather than sacrifice everything to stay at home and spend every minute with him. It’s important that he looks back and he feels proud of his parents for achieving things that are not achieved by a lot of people in our side of the world,” said Mirza.
And fortunately, the athletic world, including tennis or boxing, has witnessed several mothers making their comebacks confidently, observes Mirza.
“Closer to home, we now have someone like [Indian boxer] Mary Kom who has three children but is doing so well. Five years ago, we could count the number of them playing at the highest level in sports … There were just a handful of women who were mothers back then. [Tennis player] Kim Clijsters won Grand Slams after she became a mother … Every mother gets back to work, it’s not like athletes are superhumans. But the physical effort in being an athlete-mother is very, very high,” said Mirza. Everyday, the former world No. 1 in doubles spends two hours at the gym, followed by two and a half hours of tennis, and even then, she’s not done for the day.
But has the recent 23-year-old tennis ace Naomi Osaka’s decision to quit the French Open citing mental health issues humanised tennis players, who are often held against impossible standards?
“I have had my share of pressures when I was around her age or even young. I have spoken about having counseling and having mental health issues when young … Fifteen years ago, I went through this phase where I didn’t want to get out of my room either,” said Mirza.
The wife of Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik points out that being a top tennis player doesn’t make you any less human and that they face the same emotions and upheavals as any similar-aged young woman out there.
“Being high-profile puts immense pressure on everything we do. Think about it, even the fact that she wants to walk away is being talked about days after she walked away. So imagine the kind of pressure she has been under. I completely sympathise with her and I understand where’s coming from. I wanted to walk away at the Australian Open too,” said Mirza.
In 2008, Mirza was embroiled in a controversy for allegedly disrespecting the Indian national flag.
“There was this huge controversy and I wanted to walk away because I wondered if all of it was worth my mental peace. I wondered whether it was worth putting all this effort into playing for my country but getting all that backlash. All I wanted back then was to go way. But I did not and it’s each to their own,” said Mirza.
While she didn’t want to comment on Osaka’s timing to quit the French Open citing pressures of handling press conferences, she was happy to see women players talk about their issues out in the open. “Initially, when I felt low or depressed, I felt I was being ungrateful for everything that I have. I feared if people were going to laugh at me thinking I have all this wealth, health, and everything. Talking about depression is still so taboo because you feel you are not allowed to say you are depressed if you are successful.”
Over the years, Mirza has realised that having money or fame doesn’t automatically translate to happiness. But she’s in a good place now.
Sania's battle with COVID-19
Even though she has battled COVID-19 along with her husband in the UAE, she has swung back to the game even though the pandemic reality is starkly different now, including the much-anticipated, pandemic-delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics that will not have spectators.
“A lot of tennis players that I have spoken to are questioning their motivation behind them playing. There will be no crowds in the stands and we athletes are so used to that. Suddenly this is the new normal. Like gyms were closed for the longest time, but an athlete still needed to remain fit … We don’t go to the gym to remain thin, but it’s a part of our job … It has been extremely challenging for any athlete,” said Mirza.
While she’s grateful that she’s able to play tennis even amidst a pandemic, there’s no denying that players are often traveling the world, risking their health and lives. But representing her country on a global stage is an immense matter of pride for this 34-year-old tennis ace.
Mirza tells Gulf News that she never dreamt that she would participate in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janerio, Mirza and Rohan Bopanna failed in their bid to give their country its first medal at the Rio Games. The pair lost the tennis mixed doubles bronze medal play-off.
“Since I was 12-years-old, I was representing my country and it was a matter of pride … And to represent my country in Tokyo Olympics for the fourth time in a row is something I take a lot of pride in …. We came very close to winning a medal last time and I was devastated. If somebody told me that I will have another shot at Olympics I would have laughed back then,” said Mirza.
In 2016, Malik and she were already thinking about having a baby together. “If I get to play the fourth Olympics of my career, then I think I become the highest number of Olympics played by any woman from India … And that’s incredible because it means that I have longevity and sustainability for that long … Playing in the Olympics again is a dream come true.”
Did you know?
Sania Mirza and her Pakistan cricketer-husband Shoaib Malik will join hands to launch their tennis and cricket schools in Dubai by August.
“Tennis and cricket together in one academy is something that hasn’t been done before ... There’s a lot of potential in the UAE, especially in Dubai, and we want to nurture that talent. I haven’t spoken about it till now,” said Mirza. Her tennis school in the UAE will be a branch of the teaching academy that she launched in her native city Hyderabad in south India.
Everything is up in the air, but hopefully, my biopic will happen in the near future