Deepti Patwardhan: At Grand Slam bye, Sania acts bold

In the 18 years she has toured, Sania Mirza has been the country’s tennis standard bearer.
Never before has an Indian player dominated from the backcourt with such conviction.
Deepti Patwardhan salutes the incomparable Sania Mirza.

Photo: Sania Mirza at the 2023 Australian Open. Photo: Adam Nurkiewicz/Getty Images

From breaking the mold to inspiring millions, Sania Mirza has absolutely made the journey.

Eighteen years full of challenges.

A golden chapter of it ended on Friday, January 27, 2023, as the tennis star cruised onto the Grand Slam stage.

After an exciting run in the mixed doubles final, Sania and Rohan Bhopana fell 6-7, 2-6 for Brazil’s Luisa Stefani and Rafael Matos in their Australian Open showdown.

The 36-year-old Sanya shed “happy tears” as she ended her Grand Slam career on one of the greatest stages in the sport, Rod Laver Arena. She had run her race, and had chosen the finish line.

“I can say I’m leaving the match because I want to on my own terms,” ​​Sania said in the post-match press conference.

“Today I am here, sitting after a Grand Slam final, knowing that I still have the level to reach a Grand Slam final. I choose to say I want other things, and that is very important to me.

In her farewell, Sanya continued to defy tradition and hardship.

Like she did at the age of six, she picked up a tennis racquet when she was very young.

Play sports in a country that underestimates mathematics.

She wore tennis skirts, despite her religiosity advisory opinionagainst its working equipment.

He was the only Indian in a white sport. At the age of 24, at the height of her career, she married a Pakistani man.

When injuries prevented her from continuing with singles, she chose to stay in the game and play doubles.

She became the first Indian woman to be ranked number one in doubles.

When most people thought her career would end after giving birth, she came back with a bang.

When most guys walk away after a Grand Slam final, you decide to hit the brakes.

“I will miss her,” she said. I’m going to miss walking on the big courts, I’m going to miss being competitive and trying to win, you know, in a way, even losing, looking back on the court and fighting and coming back again. But I still feel like I have two more tournaments and I want to play. But it’s hard for me to accept at this very moment that I’m not going back here because I came here, I don’t know, 22, 20.

Photo: Sania Mirza is India’s most successful tennis player, having won six Grand Slam titles, including three mixed doubles titles. Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Indian sports have come a long way since Sania made her Grand Slam debut in Melbourne in 2005.

At just the age of 18, she became the first Indian woman to reach the third round in singles at a major tournament.

In a match against Serena Williams, Sania finished second, but her confidence left an indelible mark on Indian sports.

India has had female star players before, but we’ve never seen an Indian sportswoman so comfortable in her competitive skin.

When she came onto the scene, Sania Mirza was the star of Indian sports she wasn’t ready for.

It has appeared in many ways, often ugly, that have led to controversy.

Her only fault, it seemed, was her confidence in your face and her refusal to suffer fools.

She shook up the patriarchy the way only a strong and successful woman can.

When she was breaking new ground for Indian women in tennis, people seemed more interested in talking about how she looked or how she dressed.

Despite the glories she was bringing to the country, they were more interested in speculating whether she had done a disservice to the nation by hoisting her feet alongside the Indian flag—she hadn’t.

When she was the best female player in the country, she was used, in her words, as bait to mollify feuding male players — Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi — ahead of the 2012 Olympics.

When, in 2015, Sania was ranked number one in the world, the Indian news TV presenter asked if she was planning to settle down — that is, start a family.

‘You seem frustrated that I’m not choosing motherhood over being No. 1 in the world at this time,’ Sanya replies, packing the same punch and fire as her forehands.

Sania Mirza Wimbledon

Photo: Sania Mirza and Martina Hingis, left, celebrate their victory in the women’s doubles final at Wimbledon, July 11, 2015. Images: Julian Finney/Getty Images

In the 18 years she has been on tour, Sanya has been the country’s tennis standard-bearer.

Never before has an Indian player dominated from the backcourt with such conviction.

Not only did Sania’s play and demeanor win her fans around the world, it also saw her win a WTA title – the only singles title achieved by an Indian woman – six Grand Slam titles – three in mixed doubles and three in women’s doubles – and a total of 43 titles double. The most recent one came in Ostrava in 2021.

Sania, who delayed her retirement with a calf injury ahead of the 2022 US Open, moved closer to reaching seven grand slams at the Australian Open this year.

Knowing that this will be her last Grand Slam tournament before ending her career in Dubai, where she resides since her marriage next month, the years have turned back and intensified.

Sania Mirza

Photo: Sania with her husband and Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik and son Izhaan Mirza Malik on Izhaan’s birthday. Photo: courtesy Shoaib Malik/Instagram

With Rohan Bopanna, her first mixed doubles partner at her side, she has managed to surpass some of the best doubles players in the world.

One of the joys of watching Sanya play mixed doubles is the audacity with which she locks in long baseline races with male players, winning exchanges most of the time.

Not only is her forehand world class, it’s her golden ticket in the pressing cauldron at Grand Slam tennis.

“It feels great, especially when you go past a guy with a short forehand up the court,” she said of the shot, which was inspired by idol Steffi Graf’s playbook. “Amazing feeling.”

Photo: Sania Mirza after losing the mixed doubles final in Melbourne, January 27, 2023. Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

The Indians edged past the home team of Luke Saville and Jimmy Vorlis in the opening round before emerging with a 6-4 7-6 (9) victory over Ariel Behar and Makoto Ninomiya in the second round.

While they were given a run in the quarter-finals, Mirza Bubana’s resolve was thoroughly tested by third seeds Neil Skupski and Desira Krawczyk in the semi-finals.

Although they missed an opportunity to close out the match in the second set, the Indian pair pulled out a thrilling victory 7-6, 6-7, 10-6.

However, in the mixed doubles final, they failed to reach the Brazilians who made history. Although Sania Mirza didn’t get the perfect ending, it was a great story.

Moral? “Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do something,” she said. Even if no one has ever done it before.

Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sports writer based in Mumbai.

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