Sania Mirza’s Unlikely Stardom!

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A tennis player blazes a trail for Indian women.

“For a girl to pick up a tennis racquet and to want to be a professional—it was unheard of,” Sania Mirza says. “People thought it was a joke.”

“For a girl to pick up a tennis racquet and to want to be a professional—it was unheard of,” Sania Mirza says. “People thought it was a joke.”

On the last day of August, Sania Mirza, currently the No. 1 women’s doubles player in the world, was on one of the smaller side courts at the U.S. Open grounds, in Flushing Meadows, about to play her first match in this year’s tournament. She and her partner, Barbora Strýcová, of the Czech Republic, were squaring off against the Americans Jada Myii Hart and Ena Shibahara. The sun had begun to sneak behind the bleachers, where a few dozen fans had settled in. Occasionally, a roar from Arthur Ashe Stadium or the grandstands could be heard over their polite clapping. Mirza’s black hair was tied back in its usual businesslike bun, her dark eyes focussed beneath a neon-pink headband. Mirza’s gruelling summer had included her third Olympics, which had ended just a couple of weeks before, with a fourth-place finish in mixed doubles. Her longtime partnership with the tennis icon Martina Hingis was also coming to an end. Now she was gearing up again, knowing that millions were paying attention in her native India, even if only a handful were watching in New York.

Mirza, who will be thirty in November, is wildly famous in one hemisphere and virtually unknown in the other. She has nearly twelve million Facebook fans—more than double the number that Serena Williams has—plus four million followers on Twitter, and two million more on Instagram. She is, without hyperbole, one of the most popular athletes on Earth. She has, to date, earned $6.3 million in career prize money, a fraction of what Williams has made, but more than a thousand times the annual per-capita income in her home country.

She is also Muslim, and has sparked the ire of clerics for competing in tennis clothes that leave her arms and legs exposed. Though roughly one in twelve people on the planet is a woman from India, few Indian women have succeeded in professional sports, for reasons that are not hard to pinpoint. Last year, in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, India ranked No. 108, out of a hundred and forty-five countries listed. For years, women in India were largely discouraged from participating in high-level sports—and, unless the women were wealthy, good facilities were hard to come by, anyway.

Mirza is helping to change this. She’s an advocate for women’s rights, and has spoken up about ending the practice of female feticide in India. She has criticized government policies on domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as lopsided pay schemes, including in sports. She was the first South Asian woman to be appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations, and she often calls out reporters for asking her, and not her male counterparts, about her “family plans.” She told me that, after she and Hingis won Wimbledon last year, she was asked by a reporter when she’d be having a child. “I was, like, ‘I won Wimbledon two days ago!’ ”

Though Mirza makes light of her reputation, in India, for what some there see as arrogance, the truth is that her outspokenness has only made her more popular back home. Her stardom is an unlikely outcome, considering where she started. “For a girl to pick up a tennis racquet and to want to be a professional—it was unheard of,” she told me. “People thought it was a joke.”

Mirza grew up in Hyderabad, a city of nearly seven million. It was only half that size when she was a child, and, back then, sanitation, let alone access to a tennis court, was not a given—only a handful of courts existed, and many that did were riddled with potholes or made with cow dung (a surface that was thought to offer a middle ground between clay and hard courts). Today, as Mirza is well aware, the city center of Old Hyderabad is a hub for human trafficking, and domestic violence is an urgent problem. Though technically illegal, child marriage persists. Local police blotters in and around Hyderabad regularly carry gruesome stories: a woman who hanged herself by her sari when a dowry went sour, a husband setting his wife on fire. Just a few weeks after last year’s U.S. Open came news, from south of Hyderabad, in Bengaluru, that a woman had been raped by two security guards outside of tennis courts in Cubbon Park. It was the third such attack in the city in a month. According to local reports, the victim later told police, “I want to be like Sania Mirza.”

Mirza at her second wedding to the Pakistani cricket star
Mirza at her second wedding to the Pakistani cricket star Shoaib Malik, in his home country. His nationality drew criticisim of Mirza in India.PHOTOGRAPH BY FAISAL MAHMOOD / REUTERS

The Mirzas moved to Hyderabad, from Mumbai, when Sania was an infant, one of many families drawn to the burgeoning technology mecca. Mirza’s father, Imran, held a number of jobs, working mostly as a printer and, later, in construction. Mirza’s mother, Naseema, also had a mind for business, and she and her husband often worked together. They were ambitious, and forward-thinking in their attitude toward girls; still, they tried to avoid placing too much stress on their daughters. (Sania’s sister Anam is seven years younger.) It was on a whim that Imran signed up Sania, then six years old, for tennis lessons, at Hyderabad’s Nizam Club. There were cricketers in the Mirza family, but women’s cricket had not yet taken off in India. Tennis seemed like something she might enjoy.

A couple of months later, Sania’s coach suggested that Imran come to watch his daughter play. He put it off. When he finally saw her on the court, he immediately realized that she was a standout talent. Soon, the sport became as much a part of her childhood routine as brushing her teeth or doing her homework. Sania attended the Nasr School, a progressive all-girls private school, which adapted her academic schedule to accommodate her tennis travels. “Always in tracksuits, coming directly from practice straight to school!” Nirmal Gandhi, a teacher at Nasr who had Mirza as a student, said. “I don’t think I ever saw her serious. She was always laughing with her friends.” At the time, the Indian system for youth tennis was, Imran said, “nonexistent.” It’s not unheard of for the parents of tennis players to spend fifty thousand to a hundred thousand dollars, or more, annually on coaching, travel, and equipment, an expense that was far beyond the Mirza household budget at the time. So Imran began to coach his daughter, and set about researching local tournaments, learning what he could through word of mouth and follow-up phone calls. Sania’s mother stayed at home “to hold down the ranch,” tending to Mirza’s little sister and various pieces of family business, a pattern that would continue for twenty years—Sania’s tennis career becoming another joint family venture.

Mirza eventually won a berth in the 2003 Wimbledon junior girls’ competition, as a doubles player with Russia’s Alisa Kleybanova. They won the tournament. When Mirza stepped off the plane back in India, a mob of people greeted her and her family at the airport, fanfare that surprised them. Government dignitaries took photos with her and bestowed her with awards. The Indian press began to cover her every move, and it hasn’t stopped since. “At fifteen or sixteen, you’re still trying to get in touch with yourself as a person, as a teenager,” Sania Mirza said. “You have pimples. You have baby fat, in front of millions of people. You have to kind of grow up in front of the media, and you’re growing older and the following is getting larger and larger. You’re still getting in touch with who you are.”

“The Indian media, too, was just growing up,” Imran said. “They grew up along with Sania. They were really not geared or didn’t know how to handle a female sporting icon. They might have handled a film star, but here was the first sporting woman from India. It wasn’t easy for her, but it probably wasn’t easy for the media to deal with, either.” In 2005, as she was competing on the international circuit, a group of clerics issued a fatwa against Mirza, calling her skirts and T-shirts “un-Islamic” and “corrupting.” The cleric Haseeb-ul-hasan Siddiqui told the Guardian that the clothing she wore on court “leaves nothing to the imagination.”

“You get hate mail,” Mirza told me. “You get love mail, but hate is a lot harder to digest than love. That’s the way it is.” She continued to wear Western-style pants and heels, and slogan-bearing T-shirts, including a popular one that declared, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” The increased attention, and Mirza’s handling of it, gained her even more Muslim fans, a broad demographic that had largely been overlooked by the tennis-marketing establishment. And she excelled on the court. As a professional singles player, she reached a ranking of twenty-seven, the highest spot achieved by an Indian woman.

Privately, though, Mirza was battling a series of injuries. The hypermobile joints that helped give her flexibility on the court also led to extreme pain, which she often hid. She underwent operations on both knees and a wrist. Upon examining her body and her demanding competition schedule in 2010, doctors gave her the devastating news: she was done playing singles.

Mirza had been engaged to a longtime family friend, but in January of that year it was reported that she had called off the engagement. Then, in April, she became engaged to the Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik, whom she had met through mutual friends and had seen occasionally thereafter on various sports-related travels. The new wedding plans were a major story in India: Malik had served for two years as a captain of the Pakistani national cricket team, and cricket is something of a religion in that part of the world. Ordinarily, this would have made Mirza and Malik the Beyoncé and Jay Z of South Asian sports—but marriage to a Pakistani, even one who is an élite athlete in a treasured national pastime, is still “a huge taboo” in India, according to Bappa Majumdar, the Hyderabad bureau chief for the Times of India, who has covered Mirza. “It showed huge guts on her part,” Majumdar said.

The couple had planned an Islamic wedding ceremony in Hyderabad, with another ceremony to follow in Pakistan, adhering to that country’s customs. Within hours of the announcement, dozens of journalists had camped out in front of the Mirza home, to cover the tale of the star-crossed lover-athletes. The story then took an additional soap-opera turn: a woman from Mirza’s home town went to the press, saying that she was already married to Malik, and had been since 2002. He initially disputed this; they had merely met online and exchanged photographs—though, he said, the pictures she sent him were of someone else. But he ultimately admitted to the marriage and got a quick divorce, according to local news reports, days before his wedding to Mirza.

On account of her marriage, some of Mirza’s critics in India have called her the “daughter-in-law of Pakistan.” In an interview with a New Delhi television station, in 2014, she burst into tears, saying she was exhausted by the need to “keep asserting my Indianness.” “I have no problem if they attack me about my tennis or they attack me about what I’m doing,” Mirza told me, adding, “I come from a country of 1.2 billion people, and I’ve accepted the fact that I’m not going to be liked by all of them.” Her family, in any case, approved of the union, Imran said. “She wasn’t getting married to a country but a person.”

Mirza and her father spend much of the year on the road, but when they’re not travelling they can often be found at the Sania Mirza Tennis Academy, a set of nine hard courts nestled among farmland and jungle, with a sweeping view of Hyderabad. The family bought the plot of land four years ago, with the goal of making it a hub for tennis in India. Some hundred children are now enrolled in the academy, almost all of them having heard about it by word of mouth. Some are the children of Hyderabad’s rising middle and upper-middle classes, but others have never seen a tennis court prior to joining, and rely on scholarships, which are offered according to financial need. Backing from sponsors was not forthcoming when the academy opened, in March of 2013, so the program was jump-started with funding from the Mirza Family Trust.

Here Mirza can practice in relative seclusion. She and her father also talk to parents about the nuances of a good backhand, what competition is like internationally, and the grit required to make it as a professional. Some aspiring players have shown up at the academy’s gates on rickshaw, their parents willing to relocate some or all of the family to Hyderabad or nearby villages solely in pursuit of tennis. “They thought Sania was an overnight success, and they want results in six months,” Imran told me when I visited the academy last year. “And I keep telling them it takes ten years to find out whether they even have a chance. It cannot be done for the money or the fame. It has to be done for the passion.”

When I spoke with Mirza in Flushing, a year later, she said it had been two months since she’d been home to India. She and Strýcová won their first match at the U.S. Open, convincingly, 6–3, 6–2, and she noted afterward that the dynamic she shares with Strýcová on the court is not dissimilar from her partnership with Hingis: Mirza is strong and powerful, sweeping the back of the court, while Strýcová is nimble and poppy at the net. The two have known each other since they were teen-agers on the junior circuit, which has helped with the transition. But earlier this week they were knocked out of the Open by Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic, the tournament’s top seeds. (Garcia is ranked No. 3 in the world in women’s doubles, and Mladenovic is No. 4. Hingis is No. 2.)

Mirza published an autobiography in India this summer. She said she doesn’t know how long she’ll play, or what the future holds for Indian women, but she pointed to India’s victories at the Rio Games as a sign of progress. The Indian Olympic Committee, which had been banned, was reinstated in 2014, and the country sent its largest-ever delegation, a hundred and seventeen athletes. They won two medals: a silver in badminton, for Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, and a bronze in wrestling, for Sakshi Malik. “It was amazing,” Mirza said. “And it was the women who won!”

Article Courtesy – The New Yorker

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