BHUBANESWAR: It couldn't have happened any other way. In the week Indian women's sport soared to never-before-seen heights, its OG superstar, Sania Mirza, bid farewell from big-time tennis. The ace, partnering Rohan Bopanna, lost in the mixed doubles final of the Australian Open on Friday. The result, though, is really irrelevant here. She didn't need to win that final. Her legacy in the Indian sporting ecosystem was safe and secure long before she announced that this year's edition of the Open would be her final dance with the stars (she aims to play two more events before retiring).
What was thrilling about the Mirza experience even from the beginning was the unabashedness of it all. She never hid who she was and challenged India's conservative mindset at every step of the way. Remember the t-shirt slogan that had "Well behaved women rarely make history" or the one that read "You can either agree with me, or be wrong". These may seem small in 2023 — or maybe not — but there was literally a point of time when what was written across her t-shirt became prime time news. "It is scary that every time I wear a T-shirt, it becomes a talking point for the next three days," she had remarked once. She had just turned 19 when she was forced to say this after a few people questioned her attire. This was a few months after she became the first Indian woman to advance to the fourth round of a Major (2005 US Open).
Backed by a stinging forehand and the capacity to chase down lost causes — her big weapons that was visible at Melbourne over the course of the last 10 days — the teenager ascended up the rankings, like a champion climber. Before the start of 2005, she was No 326, a promising player. By the beginning of 2006, she was on the cover of magazines and the back pages of newspapers as she tore through the circuit picking up wins over more established players. One of the first times she made an impression among the wider public was the prime time match she played against Serena Williams at Rod Laver in 2005. For a country not that well versed in the field of singles tennis, Mirza was changing the grammar, almost overnight.
She did it in a style that was considered un-Indian. Doing it on her own terms. Raising her game, fighting, challenging the establishment, hard but fair. In 2006 alone, she took down Martina Hingis, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Nadia Petrova. Injuries meant she had to switch to doubles but she worked on it till she became the best. Then, she worked on it some more to stay there, one of the hardest things in professional sport.
Now, it's important to say that she was showing millions of Indians what was possible while fighting other Indians who tried to mock her for what she represented. A young, confident woman. During the WTA Finals in 2015, when this daily asked if she ever takes a step back to think about her younger days, she had said: "I think about it a few times. Especially when I became No 1, those memories came back. All the things that were told, that we weren't going to achieve... you have to feel proud of the things you have achieved from limited resources."
And, boy, didn't she shush the haters with her achievements? One of the first women's World No 1s. The only Indian singles player to be seeded at a Slam in the last 20 years. Only Indian woman to have won a Tour-level singles title. More than 40 doubles titles. Year-end Finals titles (for a period of time, SanTina, the doubles team comprising Sania and Hingis, was a story in itself). For 91 consecutive weeks, she was World No 1. That is still a record for an Indian woman across disciplines. She was also daring because she knew of the immense platform she commanded. She questioned this idea of 'settling down' to a prime time TV anchor. She spoke out in favour of women empowerment. In another interview to this daily, she spoke about dispelling this notion of motherhood = quiet retirement. "Anything that happens after this in my career will be a plus," she had said in December 2019, after giving birth to Izhaan. "... 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'. You don't need to give up on your dreams just because you have a baby. Women really can have it all."
When she appeared on a YouTube show hosted by Jemimah Rodrigues and Smriti Mandhana during the first Covid lockdown, she was asked a question on the growth of women's sports from the late 1990s. "When I started playing tennis, the only woman athlete you had heard of from an Indian perspective was PT Usha... 25 years down the line, we can name 10-15 women stars from India. That itself shows you how far we have come, how far we have progressed. It's you guys, Mithali (Raj), I have known and seen her for a very long time, there is (PV) Sindhu, Saina (Nehwal), Sakshi Malik... you guys are taking over that baton.
Rodrigues, Mandhana and scores of other Indian women will be playing in the inaugural Women's Premier League. That, in essence, will be her ultimate legacy.
Showing. The. Pathway.