Sania Mirza could have easily finished her career in 2017. She had pretty much won everything worth winning. The then 31-year-old was already one of the most decorated Indian athletes of this decade, so her legacy was safe. Yet, she didn’t want to take the easy way out. She wanted to keep inspiring and send a message to the scores of women out there. She felt that walking away from the sport that has given her lots was a no-no because ‘I had a responsibility as a woman (to stage a comeback)’. She was also very intimate with her off-court battles even as she made the decision to get back to doing ‘what I do best and doing what I love’. Excerpts:
After competing every year from 2001 to 2017, what were 2018 and 2019 like? Did it feel weird at first, not doing something you were doing for more than half your career?
More than strange, it was just a change in my life because my life was so different since I was like six years old. That’s (tennis) all I did so it was a good change. But also it was a break that I had intended to take. I think it’s really good that I am able to make this comeback now. I haven’t played in almost two years, so I am really excited to get back.
Did you miss tennis or were you relieved that you finally had the chance to spend time with family?
I definitely did miss tennis but I am someone who lives in the moment. I was really excited that I could spend so much time with family and not live out of a suitcase for a change. I began my own family as well so yeah... even though I was missing tennis I think that it was, you know, I would not trade this time I have had for the last two years for the world (she last featured in the China Open in 2017 with partner Pen Shuai).
When you made the decision to come back, was it a straightforward one? Like, for example, have there ever been days when you thought, ‘hang on, what if I am not good enough like I was in 2017?’
It (the decision) was not something that happened overnight. I didn’t really force or push myself. I thought, you know, after I had the baby, I said ‘let me see how my body feels, how I feel’. And if I find that inspiration and motivation again to go and work... there weren’t any days that I thought that. But there were days when I thought ‘this is really hard’. Your body changes a lot after you have a baby and it takes a lot to get back. I put on 23 kilos... to lose that weight and not just losing the weight but also getting strong after losing the weight. So it was something that wasn’t a very straight forward decision so to say but it was a decision that took time. But I think that it was a well thought out one.
What were the first few weeks like back on court?
I was actually training for the first 3-4 months (after giving birth). When I started playing tennis (again), I was physically quite strong. It was a bit weird, I had really bad shoulder pains (laughs) because my body wasn’t used to doing that anymore. But it felt really good, it made me feel really empowered, made me feel really good doing what I do best and doing what I love.
You have achieved a lot. So when you took the decision to come back, what was the primary motivating factor?
I have been asked this question a lot since I announced my decision. I think I still have some tennis left in me. Anything that happens after this in my career will be a plus, a bonus. Because I could have easily stopped and been very satisfied with my career. And I also felt that I had a responsibility as a woman that some people looked up to sort of show or prove that just because you have a baby, ‘it’s not the end of the world, it’s the beginning’. And you still can try to achieve your dreams, you don’t need to give up on your dreams just because you have a baby. Women really can have it all.
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A big change from 2017 and now is Izhaan. As a young mother, how different are training and preparation? Elite athletes develop a tunnel vision but is it tough juggling your needs and those of your son?
Of course it’s going to be a big change from 2017 but I am looking forward to the new experience. It’s going to be fun but I think the biggest challenge that I probably face or faced is the night’s sleep that you don’t get and it’s something you need as an athlete. He’s a bit older now so it’s a bit easier.
Having said that, it’s not really tough for me. You are right, we do have a tunnel vision which revolves around ourselves to be very honest because it is all about our training, our eating, our practice time, our match time, our recovery and so on.
But when you have a baby that selfless love comes by default. As a mother, I don’t really need to try to put one or the other or as an athlete I don’t try to put one or the other before each other. It just kind of manages itself. I have a really good team around me which kind of helps a lot with Izhaan as well. So I am able to focus when I am playing and I know that he is in safe hands when I am not around him. And when I am not playing tennis, I am with him so it kind of falls into place.
In the past, kids usually meant retirement. In recent times that has changed thanks to the likes of Kim Clijsters, Victoria Azarenka, Vera Zvonareva and Serena Williams. Did they inspire you in any way?
For sure. Seeing so many other mothers on Tour, it’s been amazing. You know, why not? These are great women athletes and achievers who have proved that even after a baby, you can come back and play at the top of your game. So it’s definitely very inspiring to see them and to see them compete again at the highest level.
The Olympics is later this year... are you looking that far ahead or do you want to take it tournament by tournament?
I think the Olympics is definitely something that is at the back of my mind. (But) I don’t know, as a tennis player, we have four Slams and so much to look forward to. So we can’t really plan for something 7-8 months in advance. I feel extremely proud of myself to be able to put myself in this position to be able to compete. If I am able to play my fourth Olympics, it would be very amazing.
We came extremely close last time (the pair of Rohan Bopanna and her lost in the bronze medal playoff) but unfortunately, we didn’t win. It’s at the back of my head, I wouldn’t say I am completely focused on at this moment of time because I am more focused on trying to come back and be healthy.
To partner Kichenok at Aus Open
The 33-year-old will begin her 2020 season in Hobart, partnering Ukrainian Nadiia Kichenok. Kichenok, World No 38, will also be Sania’s partner at the Australian Open. In the mixed doubles event at Melbourne, she will play with US’ Rajeev Ram.