Sania Mirza on her split from Martina Hingis, being an Indian female athlete and her career Grand Slam quest
In an exclusive chat with Firstpost, Indian tennis star Sania Mirza opens up about her split with Martina Hingis, her goals for 2017 and her fight for gender equality.
Eight titles. Australian Open women’s doubles crown. Year-end number one ranking for the second consecutive year. 2016 was an extremely successful year for Indian tennis star Sania Mirza, but it was marred with the disappointment of narrowly missing out on an Olympic medal and her split from long-time partner Martina Hingis.
Mirza had paired up with the Swiss Miss at Indian Wells in 2015, and they won three Grand Slam titles together, including the one at Melbourne this year. Together, they went on a 41-winning match streak, the longest in women’s doubles since 1990. However, they called it quits in August this year and since then, there has been a lot of speculation about their split. Firstpost caught up with the World No 1 in Mumbai at the launch of season three of The Label Bazaar, an exhibition helmed by her sister Anam Mirza.
Opening up about the split, Mirza asserted that the only reason behind their decision was the lack of results. “It was an extremely professional decision. (Doubles) partnerships are like relationships. They work, and then they don’t work. And then you move on. It’s always tricky when you split with someone you have had so much success with. But, it’s really not that big a deal as people made it out to be. It’s not that tragic. This is a professional tour. Everybody wants to win. It’s sad to finish a partnership of any kind in anything in life. But you have to accept it. She’s happy in the space with whom she’s playing with now. And obviously I am, which is why I have had success already,” she said at the promotional event.
After the split, the Indian began a new partnership with Czech Barbora Strycova and the duo had instant success, winning the women’s doubles title at their first tournament together in Cincinnati. The pair lifted their second trophy in Tokyo and also made the finals in Wuhan in 2016.
Sania plans to continue playing with Barbora in the upcoming 2017 season and believes their games really suit each other. The Indian’s biggest weapon is her booming forehand, which is complemented well by Barbora’s great skills at the net and the way she plays the backhand court. The Czech is also ranked at number 20 in the WTA singles, but Sania is confident that they will be able to strike balance as a pair.
“We had a great start and she is a great fighter, which is her biggest quality as a tennis player. The best thing about our partnership is that we are completely honest with each other. Do I feel that she is going to focus on one (singles) more than the other (doubles)? Of course not. Whenever we step on the court, it is going be 100 percent or we do not get on the court,” she said.
Sania, who has three mixed doubles slam trophies in her cabinet, aims to add more to it with current Croatian partner, Ivan Dodig. “At the moment, Ivan and me are planning to play together. He is bit injured with his back over the last four-five months, so he has been struggling with his body. If he feels his back is not 100 percent, then maybe I will play with somebody else,” she said.
The Indian is also open to pairing up with compatriot Rohan Bopanna, with whom she made the semifinals of the Olympic Games in Rio. The Indian pair eventually suffered heartbreak in the super tie-break against the experienced American duo of Venus Williams and Rajeev Ram. Speaking about the emotional loss, Sania said, “I think that my realistic chance of winning a medal while I was peaking was this (Rio 2016) and we came as close as we could. I don’t know if I will be around in four years, maybe I will be. But I am not thinking about it right now. As tennis players, we have to think about 25 weeks a year, and that’s my focus right now.”
Her top focus for the coming year is another Grand Slam title, and she has her eyes set on winning at Roland Garros. In women’s doubles, Mirza has Wimbledon, US Open and Australian Open titles in her kitty and she wishes to complete her career slam in 2017. “I would love to win a Grand Slam next year. If that does happen (winning women's doubles French Open) it would be amazing. I won't kill myself if I don't. It would be an amazing set for me to have. In the mixed doubles, it's the Wimbledon that I am missing. But really, I would love to win any slam. It would be amazing for me to have three back-to-back years with at least one slam.”
In April 2015, Mirza made history by becoming the first Indian woman to reach the No 1 ranking in doubles and she is closing in on 90 straight weeks at the top. What makes her incredible run even more impressive is the stiff competition that she has held off to retain her ranking.
Speaking about her opponents, the Indian drew comparisons between women’s and men’s doubles. “If you take out the rankings of women’s doubles players, you will usually see that everybody either has been in the top 30-20 of singles or is currently. In the men’s doubles, it’s a little different. The level of competition in women’s doubles has always been very, very high. It’s just that now the prize money has become much bigger. It’s really followed. It’s getting a lot more attention today because the level of tennis is also very good. With (Caroline) Garcia-(Kristina) Mladenovic, Bethanie (Matte-Sands)-Lucie (Safarova), (Elena) Vensina-(Ekaterina) Makarova – these are all top 20 players in singles.”
However, in her stellar career it’s not just the opponents on the court that Sania has had to battle. Despite reigning over her contemporaries for so long, the Indian has seen subjected to unwarranted scrutiny and sexist questions.
“I have always said this, being a female celebrity, an athlete in this part of the world is difficult. It’s not just difficult being a tennis player, (but) becoming an athlete. It’s also dealing with the other things around you. Being a woman athlete is probably the toughest thing you can do. The margin of error is very, very small,” she explained.
Mincing no words, Sania said, “The problem is that there are certain questions asked to women without thinking that there is anything wrong with them. And that’s the cause that we as women, and especially modern, independent women, are all fighting for. At some point in our lives, we have always been asked to not go play in the sun because you will become dark, and you won’t get married. We have always been asked when we are going to have kids. Once you have a kid, the question becomes when you are going to have the next kid. That’s the way society in this part of world looks at “settling down”. To change this, it’s a process that’s going to take all of us women to fight against together. That is something that we will have to do time and again, on every single day of our lives. But we are going to have to fight it as a unified voice.”
With her no-holds-barred approach, Sania has emerged as a feminist icon and inspiration for women everywhere. In 2014, she was named as UN Women Goodwill Ambassador for South Asia. She knows she doesn’t need to answer any critics and that her racquet has done all the talking. Winning 40 titles with 15 different partners, Mirza is one of the most dominant doubles player of her generation. A trailblazer in every sense of the word, she has no plans of stopping any time soon.
“I think because I love tennis, I love the game, it’s my biggest motivation. I love the competition. Do I love the hard work all the time? No. Sometimes, you have to push yourself. You have to remind yourself that there’s a reason that you are number one, there’s a reason for everything that you have achieved. You do it for the love of the sport. Any day that I will wake up in the morning and feel, you know what, I don’t feel like competing today, I’ll stop playing tennis. Right now, every morning I wake up, I want to win,” she concluded.
With this win, India are at the top of Group 2 and have won all their matches. Guyana are at the second position and have registered their first loss after winning the first two matches.
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Emma Raducanu will face 60th-ranked Liudmila Samsonova for a berth in the semifinals. Meanwhile, Nick Kyrgios vs fourth-seeded Reilly Opelka, and Frances Tiafoe vs Botic van de Zandschulp were halted due to rain on Thursday night.