Australian Open 2020: Sania Mirza back to 'special' place where it all started, with new challenge

  • Sania Mirza returns to first Grand Slam tournament since appearing in the semis of US Open 2017.

  • Mirza made a winning start to her comeback since giving birth by winning the title in Hobart.

  • Mirza is partnering Ukrainian Nadiia Kichenok in women's doubles and Rohan Bopanna in mixed doubles at Australian Open.

It would be 867 days since Sania Mirza last took court in a Grand Slam match. Her last appearance came alongside Shuai Peng in the semi-finals of the US Open in 2017. On Thursday, she will step up on Court 13 alongside Nadiia Kichenok at a "special" Australian Open.

 Australian Open 2020: Sania Mirza back to special place where it all started, with new challenge

Sania Mirza and Nadiia Kichenok after winning the title in Hobart. Photo: Twitter/Hobart International

The tournament already holds a special place in her heart and for good reason. It is in Australia that she became the first Indian woman to play a singles main draw match (2005), a year later she was the first Indian woman to be seeded at a Slam, won her first Grand Slam doubles title (2009 in mixed doubles with Mahesh Bhupathi) before adding one in women's doubles (2016 alongside Martina Hingis).

This time, the journey to Australia has more baggage. Literally. With a bigger entourage than before, Mirza arrived in Hobart and now Melbourne with son Izhaan and family to help tend to the 14-month old.

"I have a lot of memories from here. It's a special place in my heart because this is my first-ever Slam that I ever played, it's also the first-ever Slam that I would be playing after I've had that two-year absence, which I didn't know how I was going to make it back after having a baby," she said prior to the Australian Open.

"It's as close to a home slam for us as it gets, especially for Asians."

829 days had passed between Mirza's last official appearance and her start to the second innings in Hobart. The return has been fruitful and surprising for most, including the Indian. Four straight matches won, two sets dropped, and a 42nd doubles title suggests the toll of giving birth (and gaining 23 kilos!), knee injury and time off has had little impact. But that is Mirza for you, she makes the difficult look easy.

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Her battles haven't just been on the court: She's had to fend scrutiny that comes with being a female sportsperson, a Muslim female sportsperson, an Indian married to a Pakistani cricketer and now that of making a comeback to professional sport as a mother.

Not many can pull it off and the harsh nature of the tour doesn't help. In a sport with uncertainty over schedules and the next flight, the challenge gets compounded for a mother where the tournaments are hardly equipped and the services lacking for the most part. The physical, emotional and mental toll gets doubled with that of being a professional and a parent.

"There are those moments like when I'm leaving the room and he starts crying. He now understands that when I'm leaving the room, I'm gone for a bit. So when I'm putting on my shoes, he starts crying because he thinks I'm actually leaving him and going. Those kind of moments break your heart a little bit," she was quoted as saying by Times of India on the emotional aspect of the return with son in tow.

"At the end of the day, you know it's temporary. He forgets it in about three seconds. But at that moment, to actually walk out is tough. He's not talking yet, but in his mind, he's saying, 'don't go'. It is those kind of moments that are tough, but I know that I've got a solid base."

Only three women have gone on to win a Grand Slam after giving birth: Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong in the 1970s and Kim Clijsters at the 2009 US Open. Serena Williams has come close since giving birth to daughter Olympia and returning to the tour. Victoria Azarenka, Lindsay Davenport, Tatjana Maria and Evgeniya Rodina have been other prominent names to have made successful return as mothers.

For Sania and Kichenok, first round will be against an all Chinese pairing of Han Xinyun (53rd rank) and Zhu Lin (71st rank) who lost in the first round of Shenzhen in the preparatory tournament. The newly formed team partnered for a solitary tournament in 2019 (at Tianjin Open) where they exited in the semi-finals.

She was scheduled to partner Rohan Bopanna in the mixed doubles following injury to Rajeev Ram. But the niggling calf injury means Mirza has pulled out of the mixed doubles resulting in 'Bops' partnerring Kichenok.

She concedes that the reason, the crucial factor, behind the return is to be a role model for the mothers in India. "I feel especially in the part of the world that I come from, when women have a kid or kids, it's treated as kind of an end of their world, it's all about the children. I feel that women are made to feel if they go out and chase their dreams, they're probably not the best mothers in the world."

"I hope that changes. I hope that if my victory or even one match can inspire even one woman to follow her dream or heart, I would be really, really privileged."

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Updated Date: Jan 22, 2020 17:43:40 IST