KARACHI: When Sania Mirza became the first Indian to win a Women’s Tennis Association event in 2005, the victory marked the beginning of her contributions to several firsts for tennis in the country.
Now, after an illustrious career that has turned Mirza into a symbol of confidence and resilience, the 35-year-old is carving out plans for a future beyond the court, where she hopes to inspire and nurture young talents in the sport she loves.
“For me, playing tennis was not about wanting to be famous one day or getting a lot of wealth; it was my love for it that overtook everything else,” Mirza told Arab News in an exclusive interview.
“If I’m able to inspire even one girl to pick up a tennis racket, it would mean a lot.”
India’s most accomplished woman tennis player said that she has spent the past year setting up her tennis academy in Dubai, after establishing several facilities in her home country.
In the UAE, two chapters are currently up and running, with the newest location, opened earlier this month, located in the Oud Metha area, where many people from the subcontinent reside.
“Dubai is my second home, it has been for a long time,” she said, speaking from her UAE house.
“Our dream is to try to encourage young boys and girls to not just pick up cricket, but to pick up tennis and actually be good at it. Who knows, maybe we’ll have a champion from Dubai someday.”
As her conversation with Arab News briefly touched on the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Mirza said that the British monarch’s passing felt like “an end of a couple of eras.”
“It is definitely sad and I think it was personal on different levels for all of us, for many different reasons. I love royalty, so for me it was heartbreaking.”
Mirza’s own headline-making announcement occurred earlier this year in January, when she revealed that planned to retire from competition at the end of the 2022 season.
But the plan might change after injury forced her to pull out of the US Open last month.
“I still haven’t recovered from my injury, so I am unsure about my plans at the moment,” she said. “Once I recuperate and begin training and playing, I will plan my next move.”
Mirza, who first picked up the racket when she was six, has won six Grand Slam titles, including three mixed doubles trophies.
When her singles career was cut short by wrist injuries, she reinvented herself as a doubles player and went on to become the first Indian to reach the top of the WTA doubles rankings in April 2015.
But the accomplishments that catapulted her to international fame were not without their challenges, Mirza said.
“I was the first to be able to win so many titles, but what people don’t realize is that it was difficult to be the first one because there is no path to follow; you’re learning from your own mistakes,” she said.
“The amount of work that goes into becoming a professional athlete and staying one for over two decades is hard. What everybody sees is only a few hours we’re on the court, which is actually the easiest part.”
After the athlete took maternity leave in 2018 to give birth to her first child with Pakistani cricket player Shoaib Malik, she faced scrutiny when she decided to return to the court.
“People are constantly judging my abilities as a mother. I should not have to choose between being a good mother and being a tennis player. Why can’t I be both? Why am I being questioned if I’m able to give my family time, but a man is not being questioned for the same thing?”
Before she became pregnant, Mirza said that people had assumed the couple could not have children.
“It didn’t occur to them that I am a professional athlete and that maybe my career was more important to me than having a child at that time,” she said.
Believing that she had a “bigger purpose” than merely winning competitions, her experience compelled her to be more outspoken about the issue, a subject that has also made headlines for other champions, such as US tennis player Serena Williams.
“I’ve been put in this position where I can reach out to a lot more people and I feel it’s my responsibility to speak about such issues,” Mirza said.
The tennis superstar was also vocal about ageism in sports and said her decision to retire is due to her many injuries.
“The only thing that should matter is if you’re able to win. For me, age is just a number. I’m retiring because I feel like my body is giving up on me.”
With plans to encourage a new generation of young athletes and expand her tennis academy in the UAE, the woman who grew up in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad told Arab News that a biopic might be in the works, though there is “nothing concrete yet.”
Mirza said that any biopic must not only show the truth and struggles, but also “inspire kids.”
“I want to highlight that everything comes with a price, and every effort to be successful at anything requires sacrifice and commitment. But once you get there, it is special.”