The Enduring Difficulty of Being Sania Mirza

Gender

The Enduring Difficulty of Being Sania Mirza

Illustration: Siddhakanksha Mishra

D uring the Wimbledon broadcasts this year, I was Sania Mirza’s producer. Our paths had crossed many times before. I had interviewed her many times in my capacity as a sports journalist. And perhaps even earlier than that, when I was a teenager playing national-level tennis at the same time as Mirza. But when she walked into the studio for a briefing before Wimbledon, my jaw dropped. She had lost all the weight she’d gained during her pregnancy in a matter of months. I had to ask what diet she had started after the baby, but she simply laughed and winked, saying no one would be able to stick to it the way she had.

It’s this fortitude that has propelled Mirza to the heights she’s achieved in her career. Before the Dipa Karmakars and PV Sindhus of today, Sania Mirza was the original poster-girl of Indian sports. It’s been a decade now since she won her first Grand Slam title, and India is still waiting for another woman to emulate her. But her road to the pinnacle was far from an easy one. In her two-decade career, Mirza has been the subject of harsh judgement and intense scrutiny for even the most minute choices. Remember when her choice of t-shirt slogans became a national debate? Her life might look like a bed of roses, but Sania Mirza sleeps on a thousand thorns.

Right from the start of her journey, Sania Mirza always carried the burden of her surname. A Mirza woman isn’t “supposed” to wear short skirts and prance about a tennis court. A Mirza woman cannot be seen playing alongside men. A Mirza cannot be very patriotic, can she? These are the perceptions and misconceptions that she has had to fight all her life. During the 2008 Hopman Cup, a young Mirza even admitted that she was on the verge of quitting the sport she loved so much because of a massive row over a picture of her in the stands watching a match, which appeared to show her feet resting near the Indian flag. She told me later that the photo was taken from a deceptive angle. The flag had been many rungs lower than where she had been sitting. It’s moments like these that can tear apart the career – and psyche – of a young athlete.

A couple of years later, in 2010, when Mirza married Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik, the outrage only grew louder. How could an Indian tennis icon marry a Pakistani? Which team would she support when India played cricket against Pakistan? In a country where an ordinary Muslim’s patriotism is always under question – especially in events of national importance like cricket matches or the singing of the national anthem in a movie hall – even our biggest female sporting icon is not immune to these toxic insinuations. Mirza is undisputedly India’s most successful professional tennis player ever, yet her patriotism and loyalties are always being questioned.

Before the Dipa Karmakars and PV Sindhus of today, Sania Mirza was the original poster-girl of Indian sports.

It’s not just these ridiculous accusations and prejudices that Mirza has had to battle against. As a woman trying to make her way in a male-dominated sport, her early years were spent in the shadow of her male compatriots, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. They garnered much more attention than she did. Their prowess on the tennis courts proved to be just as gripping as the controversies that tied them up in knots for years. Their epic falling out was part of the whole saga’s appeal. Despite their bickering, they were media darlings. 

It has never been like that for Mirza. She’s never seemed afraid to hit back at her trolls, with Twitter comebacks almost as fierce as her return-serve. Yet she didn’t receive the tag of “volatile genius” like Paes and Bhupathi, being typecast as brash and rude, when she was really just giving as good as she got. Her case is similar to another female tennis superstar, Serena Williams, in how she is put on trial by the media for behaviour that would be dismissed if it were enacted by a male athlete. The same people who will justify Virat Kohli’s verbal aggression on and off the field, will be appalled – or threatened – by Mirza’s feistiness. But, this is the price female sports stars have to pay.  

Years have passed, and with the men refusing to grow up, Mirza’s legacy is no longer in thrall to theirs. She is a champion who has rubbed shoulders with the best in the world because she too was one of them. And now, Mirza is building on that legacy by working her way toward a comeback after motherhood.

Even being on break to spend time with her family and have her baby wasn’t easy for Mirza. During this year’s ICC Cricket World Cup, someone from Twitter’s more toxic corners questioned whether she was a good mother because she was spotted out with the Pakistan cricket team in the middle of their World Cup campaign, instead of sitting at home and taking care of her son. We met after the ensuing social media storm, and she told me how she had only stepped out to have some dinner with her husband and his teammates, but the media decided to go berserk. A picture that was taken a couple of days before the game against India was circulated a day before the match, and Mirza was made out to be the villain of the piece for “distracting” her husband. Of course, she dismissed it all with a simple laugh – but it’s clear that it’s not easy being Sania Mirza.

We’d give anything to be her in the glorious times. When she lifted the Wimbledon Junior Girls Doubles Title way back in 2003; when she won seven Grand Slam titles; when she represented India at the Olympics; when she became World No 1 in the women’s doubles ranking. But while some superstars are fortunate enough to be loved unconditionally, that never applied to Sania Mirza. If you want to be her, you will be trolled for the clothes you wear, the man you love, where you go, or why you lost a final, despite it all. And with a comeback on the cards, it is only going to get more difficult. It’s a tough job, and it needs a tough person to do it. Luckily, that person is Sania Mirza.

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