Sania Mirza
India’s Sania Mirza thanks the crowd after playing her last match, with doubles partner Madison Keys of United States at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, on February 22, 2023. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Fairytale endings are found only in fiction. Sania Mirza would agree wholeheartedly. There was no perfect ending to her glorious international tennis career. Not that she expected it. After 20 years on the professional circuit, the 36-year-old Indian star would be fully aware that not all matches go according to plan.

A Grand Slam title would be the perfect sign-off to Mirza’s career. She came agonisingly close, losing the mixed doubles final at the Australian Open in January. A month later, her farewell match never scaled the highs of her yesteryears. The fairytale ending never came in the Dubai Tennis Stadium, but applause rang out through Court 3. Much like the standing ovation at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne a few weeks back.

All the anticipation and expectation evaporated. Sania bravely fielded the questions in the media room, her eyes welling up as the press conference wore on, looking back at the high points of her career and her contribution to Indian sport.

India has produced top-notch tennis players like Ramanathan Krishnan, Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan, followed by Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. But there has never been a woman tennis pro before Mirza. And there isn’t one after her either. So what has been Mirza’s impact?

Ever since Mirza won the Wimbledon girls’ doubles title as a 17-year-old in 2003, she had become the darling of Indians. Huge crowds turned up to watch her; parents named their children after her and persuaded girls to play tennis. That’s a huge talent pool in a country of 1.4 billion, but even after two decades, there hasn’t been another Sania Mirza. That’s a pity.

After Sania Mirza, who?

Mirza, who lamented the lack of a tennis system in India, said there had been plenty of talented players, but they vanished. “Every time we see a glimmer of hope, they either go to college, and after college, they never come back to compete, or they’re just not able to make that next jump,” Mirza said. Why is that? None of them had the burning ambition and the drive to succeed in tennis.

That’s what separated Mirza from the rest. She wanted to make her mark in tennis. Her parents understood that and encouraged her to pursue the sport. “I was very lucky to have parents who were maybe ahead of their times. They didn’t care what people said, what society said about their young girl wanting to play Wimbledon one day,” Mirza said.

Mirza dreamt big and chased her dreams with zeal and stubbornness. Nothing was allowed to come in the way of her pursuit of success. The conservatives in India were riled to see her playing in short skirts in front of massive crowds. Mirza couldn’t care less. She would even go on to model clothes and other merchandise.

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The girl from Hyderabad didn’t apologise for what she did. She didn’t have to. She loved tennis. Played it with passion. Enjoyed the fruits of her labour. Revelled in the fame and fortune. Why should she apologise? Everything that came her way was by sheer dint of the sweat on her brow. She broke into the top 30 in WTA singles rankings, No one can stake any claim on that, let alone tell her how to live her life.

She lived life on her terms. Spoke up and spoke out when necessary. Mirza would even encourage fellow players to stand up for their rights. “I’ve known Sania for more than 15 years. She’s an amazing person and has inspired me to speak and stand up for my rights,” American tennis player and Mizra’s doubles partner Madison Keys said on Tuesday.

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In life, Mirza made bold decisions, including moving to Dubai as her base. It worked well. When injuries cut short her singles career (she was World No. 27), Mirza changed lanes and found abundant success. Six Grand Slam titles — three in women’s doubles and three in mixed — which catapulted her to the top of the WTA doubles ranking are ample testimony.

That success set off a tidal wave of interest in women’s tennis. Mirza is a true trueblazer. Sadly, no Indian girl has taken up her mantle. There aren’t any Indian girls wielding tennis racquets in the WTA top 100.

“If you’re talking about someone trying to achieve, not just me as a benchmark, but more than what I have, I honestly feel that it will probably be someone who’s maybe five or six years old today,” Mirza said.

Advice for aspiring players

For them, her advice would be: “Back yourself and believe in yourself. If you are not your biggest cheerleader, nobody else will believe in you. No matter how many odds you face, even if nobody’s done it before, whatever path you choose, believe that you can do it. I think it’s very, very important to have that belief in yourself.”

The next prodigy can boldly tread Mirza’s path. It’s the route to success. A success born out of hard work and determination. When that happens, Mirza will applaud, pausing between her school runs.

As for fairytale endings, tune into Bollywood and watch Shah Rukh Khan movies.