Sania Mirza at her tennis academy in Al Mankhool in Dubai
Sania Mirza at her tennis academy in Al Mankhool in Dubai Image Credit: ClintEgbert/GulfNews

Former Wimbledon doubles champion Sania Mirza, who lives in Dubai with her cricketer husband Shoaib Malik and her young son, will never forget playing on a tennis court made from cow dung in her native Hyderabad in South India.

And if that wasn’t sobering, she also remembers being rejected for being “too small” while trying to enroll in a tennis academy with animal waste surface.

“I don’t want any six-year-old today to play on cow dung courts. I want tennis to move forward,” said Mirza in an interview with Gulf News.

But she isn’t someone who just moans about it, she went on to do something concrete. After achieving sporting glory on the world stage and becoming one of India’s most beloved and famous stars in tennis, Mirza paid it forward by launching a plush fully-functional tennis academy in Hyderabad. Recently, she also launched two new eponymous tennis centres in Dubai’s Al Mankhool and Jumeirah Lake Towers symbolising a brand new chapter in her life.

“I don’t know anything else besides playing tennis and that’s all I want to embark on. I want to give back. When I look back at my journey, I can only be grateful for everything that I have been able to achieve … From playing in cow dung courts to winning Wimbledon, I feel very grateful,” said Mirza.

The 35-year-old tennis champion, who is one of India’s biggest style icons, looks around her newly-opened tennis academy in Al Mankhool and feels a sense of reflected pride at being able to re-invent herself in a field that’s she so familiar with.

“Dubai is my second home and it has been one for a very long time. I want to bring a sport like tennis to everyday life … Tennis is too much of an elite sport. We still push our kids towards cricket, especially if they are boys … I want that to change a little,” said Mirza. Excerpts from our interview with the tennis ace as we discuss her impending retirement, her career, and launching Sania Mirza Tennis Academy in Dubai ...

Congratulations, your dream of bringing tennis to the homes of everyday people has been fulfilled …

Tennis is too much of an elite sport. People think tennis and golf are not accessible. But I want to change that mindset. You don’t have to be from an elite background to play this sport – especially in a place like Dubai. Secondly, we have been running a very successful tennis academy back home in Hyderabad, our flagship. It’s spread over four acres. But all I am trying to do is to bring tennis to the homes of all those communities from our subcontinent and beyond. And I feel a strong sense of giving it back. Dubai has been my second home for a long time and this feels so right.

Indian parents are known to push their children towards excelling in academics rather than taking up sports seriously … Have you witnessed any change?

The mindset is changing. The kind of education that sport gives you is so valuable. Sport teaches you to be resilient. It teaches you how to fight against the odds and teaches you how to be humble in victory. It teaches you that as long as you keep fighting, there can be another day. Sports teaches us life lessons that no education can perhaps give and there’s no one textbook that will teach you to handle wins and losses gracefully. I had completed my 12th standard and I attended college for a year and a half. But I had to choose between Wimbledon and college, and I chose college. And, look how that turned out for me … I am not saying every child learning tennis should become a professional. The goal is to play any sport and cultivate that fighting, never-say-die attitude. I am this person because I have played sport. I am not like this because I went to school … But sports teach you about commitment and discipline. There’s no other job that teaches a ten-year-old about discipline than a sport.

Sania Mirza talks about life, career choices and more at her newly-opened academy in Dubai
Sania Mirza talks about life, career choices and more at her newly-opened academy in Dubai Image Credit: ClintEgbert/GulfNews

So, one of my twins is a sore loser. Does tennis help with that as well …

My son is a sore loser too. Competitiveness is in his blood and we can’t take it out of him. He’s barely four, but when he loses, he literally loses it. Even when we are walking, he wants us to walk behind him so that he can come first. We didn’t teach him that, but he woke up like that. We are the last ones to insist that he wins, but it’s very important for a child like him to handle defeat. In sports, you lose more than you win most of the time. It’s very important that he learns how to deal with and react to the loss. What really defines you as a person and what builds a character is the way you handle losses. He’s four and far too young, but character and commitment levels are built.

Did you always want to launch tennis academies in Dubai?

Honestly, it was my goal and I have always wanted to do this. But I was travelling non-stop … But now that I have decided that I am going to retire and this is going to be my last year, I can build on it. I am only 35, but you have to keep moving on in life right? I might retire from one profession, but I am still young enough to build another … It’s time to pass on so much experience that I have gathered and it’s time to give back as well. The goal is to try and have tennis centres all over Dubai and the UAE. Now that I live here, I can have a personal touch. I have got several offers to start academies in different countries, but it’s just not just about business for me. I don’t want my name in 50 different places, I want to be personally involved. The coaches in my centres have been trained under me and we have a sense of camaraderie among us.

Is you cricketer husband involved in this …

No, this is entirely my baby … I am a professional athlete and it’s soon to end. But I can’t sit still … Just like how you are the mother of three children and you are still independent, I want to be a woman who can provide for herself and her kids … I cannot sit back and chill.

RDS_181222 Sania Mirza baby 2
Shoaib Malik and Sania Mirza Image Credit: Twitter

Was it a tough call to announce you decision to retire from the world of professional tennis?

It’s always a tough call … Being a professional athlete is not just about what you want to do. It’s not as black and white. At the beginning of this year, I said it was going to be my last season. I was going to play US open, but I tore my tendon in my elbow and I wasn’t able to play. But I might play the Australian Open and that’s why I am not sure of what my retirement plans are like. When you are a professional athlete, you have to take a lot of things into consideration. We travel for 25 to 30 weeks. I have a family now and do I want my son to travel 30 weeks with me or do I leave him for 30 weeks – which is a hard no for me. There’s no right or wrong in parenting … Plus, I have had four surgeries. I have had a long career. I turned pro in 2003 and we are in 2022. I am not young as a tennis player. I am 35 and I am one of the veterans of the tour. These are facts … After giving birth, I am 20 in the world but that’s not the point. My willingness to work and put in that effort every day is becoming less. And, that’s a fact. To be on top of any professional sport, you are required to be extremely focused and motivated every single day. Those days are less and less as I grow older.

So can women have it all?

I was number one in the world at what I did for over 90 weeks. Not many people in the world get to say that. I was able to reach the pinnacle of my sport and that’s close to my heart. I wasn’t able to win an Olympic medal and that may always remain a dream. But you have to accept and acknowledge that every dream cannot be fulfilled. Right now, having it all means being the mother of my child. Having it all, right now, also means giving back to tennis in a different way. Having academies around the world means the world to me.

Sania Mirza and Shoaib Malik
Sania mirza with her family in Dubai, a city that they consider their second home Image Credit: Insta/MirzaSania