Sania Mirza is unarguably the most successful female tennis player in India’s history. She currently ranks first in women’s doubles, alongside Swiss player Martina Hingis. From 2003 until her retirement from singles in 2013, she was ranked India’s number one player, in both singles and doubles.
Initially coached by her father, Sania entered International tennis in 2003, going on to win the junior Wimbledon Championship the same year. She became the first Indian woman to reach an under 100 rank in women’s singles, as well as the zenith of 27th rank.
From 2012 onwards, her focus primarily shifted towards doubles and in just three years’ time she made it to the first rank. She has won three mixed doubles grand slams, and 26 WTA titles. She has also received the Arjuna Award and Padma Shri for her contribution to the sport.
In the process of glorifying a successful person, we often tend to ignore the role of the larger team at play. Even in a sport like tennis which involves one or two players, it’s the larger team that enables the player to stay focused, making him or her successful. This theory holds perfectly well in the case of Sania Mirza, where her family, especially her mother Nasima and father Imran, has played the role of her support system – the larger team working behind her success.
Being the first in her field and having no role model to imitate, one can only imagine how complex and exciting it would have been for Sania and her family to tread the path together.
YourStory recently had a chance to visit the academy Sania Mirza has started in Hyderabad to encourage the new talent in tennis, and speak to her father, Imran Mirza.
In the discussion he had with us, Imran spoke about his daughter’s passion for the sport and how much she enjoys it.
Right from her childhood, Sania believed that a good opponent makes her better at the sport, and hence enjoyed playing difficult matches. Even today, the greater the challenge is, the more she enjoys the struggle, the game, and pleasure of winning it. This mind-set has helped her develop this unique talent of performing under great pressure, which allows her not to choke in difficult situations.
Apart from tennis, Sania has been a fighter in real life too. From being attacked for wearing a skirt in the tennis court, to marrying a Pakistani cricket player; to playing alongside an Israeli player, as well as accusations of disrespecting India’s national flag; Sania has faced numerous controversies over the past decade. There were times of grave fear when fatwas were issued against her, and times when she underwent the pain of being deemed unpatriotic. Recently when she chose to become the brand ambassador for the newly formed state of Telangana, she received a lot of criticism. What keeps her going, however, is her deep humanism, love for the sport, and desire for survival.Recalling the 2005 Kolkata incident, where her decision to play in shorts despite the fatwas issues against her propelled Sania to be a bold feminist role model for many, Imran told us how she always stays by her decisions, and strives to do the right thing. He also spoke on how the family has stayed together supporting each other during such times. It is because of her strong and supportive family that Sania continues to remain unaffected by criticism and continues to get better at her game.
Imran remembers a six-year-old Sania when she held the tennis racket for the first time. No one in her family ever imagined that she would come this far. Even during Sania’s rise to success, the family kept second guessing, as they didn’t have a role model to imitate, or an action plan to follow in their situation.
Today, India has its own role model in women’s tennis it can look up to. In 125 years of the sport, Sania is the first Indian woman to accomplish this feat. The newer generation has the opportunity to play with her and learn from her.
Imran smiled when he spoke about the common thread between his family and the families of Mahesh Bhupati and Leander Paes. Just like their families, his family was also associated with sports. While Bhupati and Paes’ families had produced well known tennis players, four of Mirza’s relatives were popular cricketers they took pride in.
In order to obtain funds for Sania’s training, her parents had to get sponsorship from the business community. Krishna Bhupati, Mahesh Bhupati’s father, also helped with Sania’s professional training.
Being parents of a sports person is not easy. There is a lot of work involved. Take the example of Visa. You need to arrange for 20-25 visas a year, which is not easy unless you are a famous player. You need to finance your way through 20-25 tournaments every year, each one in a different country. Add to it the complexity of hotel bookings, flight changes, and paying taxes in each of these countries adhering to their rules and regulations. You need to be a financer, a travel agent, a coach and an economic advisor.
One can only imagine the kind of support system a tennis player needs to become successful. It is because of this support system that Sania has been able to stay focused on her game. Imran added from his personal experience that since they know their child very well, parents have the potential to become the perfect support system for a sport person in the Indian context where getting a dedicated and skilled staff is difficult otherwise.
Dismissing the recent trends, Imran believes that parents should not pressurize their children on joining sports for the sake of earning money or the glamour associated with it. “Instead of mastering the sport, they want easy money and quick popularity,” says Imran. Parents should understand what the child wants and play the role of the enabler. Imran also complains against the parents who, because of their own fears and inhibitions, do not support their extremely talented kids. At the same time, Imran believes that being academically strong is important for a young sports person.
It is always good to keep one foot in academics. A sports person should never quit studies, atleast for the initial years. There could be many reasons a child may lose his sport, from financial to health related. In such a situation, being good in studies helps in avoiding a complete ruin. If a child is good at both sports and academics, scholarships come easy. Sania for example, was a brilliant student too.
Imran believes that parents have an important role to play in the child’s sports career, and that is the only way to create benchmarks for a country which still has a long way to go in sports. He believes that parents should travel more with their child.
One of her parents was always with Sania in her tours. Selecting the tournaments was also their responsibility. “While you play some tournaments with the intention to win, you play others for the experience,” says Imran.
When asked if he has any regrets that he missed out on his own dreams in the process of fulfilling his daughters, Imran just laughs.
Not at all. We love the game and share an equal passion for it. We are proud of our daughter’s talent.
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- Sania Mirza
- Mahesh Bhupathi
- Padma Shri
- Leander Paes
- Imran Mirza
- Martina Hingis