All good things come to an end: Sania Mirza on retirement

Sania Mirza, in an emotional interview with us, talks about her decision to quit; the love she thought she didn’t have in her and how motherhood changed it; and the noises she has been shutting out
Sania Mirza
Sania Mirza

As a young girl, when Sania Mirza said, ‘One day I want to play at Wimbledon’, people laughed, thinking she cracked the best joke. Well, Sania did crack, but definitely not a joke, for she came, she played, and she conquered! She is a six-time grand slam winner; she slayed it every time she entered the court; whether she won or lost, she has been a phenomenon to reckon with. Love her, or hate her, but you could never ignore her. With sheer grit and determination, she single-handedly represented tennis and put India on the world map, clinching the No. 1 title in world ranking. There’s been no one like her, and if there ever will be another like her, is a big question. Players will come and go, but Sania’s name will echo on for a long time to come.

She is her own person, from the beginning of her career to its close. As a young girl, while all she was trying to do was play the sport she loves, people were more observant and supposedly more concerned about the skirt she wore — which by the way, is routine attire for all female players. If it wasn’t her skirt, it was her marriage to Pakistan’s cricket captain Shoaib Mallik, with most terming her as ‘Pakistan’s bahu’! We all have watched her hold the Indian National Flag on the podium with pride, and then we have watched her break down on air when she was pushed to identify her nationality! She has courted controversies more than we may remember. But Sania has risen like a phoenix every single time, shutting out the noise around her with her racquet. Like she told this writer in a previous interview years ago, ‘I don’t look back in anger’, Sania has always focused on moving ahead.

The 36-year-old tennis sensation has recently announced her retirement from the sport. Of course, she is going to be around tennis, but just not competing. Like most parts of her life which she has led on her own terms, the decision to quit the court was also made after much thought and on her own terms. She played her farewell match in Hyderabad recently, which was as nostalgic — considering Sania began her career from the same city and at the same stadium, Lal Bahadur Stadium — as it was emotional as much for her as for all her fans who have loved watching her play, were a part of her journey and to those who she has taught to dream.

Sania Mirza. Pic credit: WTA
Sania Mirza. Pic credit: WTA

In the midst of all she has been through ever since she said goodbye, Sania took out some time to speak to us and tell us what makes her the woman she is, how motherhood has changed her, and her decision to quit, which wasn’t made in a day, of course.

In a recent interview, you said, 'You can still dream after becoming a mother'. Do tell us what you went through when you became a mother and then got back on court. What was your headspace like?
I think when you become a mother, a lot of your priorities obviously change, which is natural. But the fact of the matter is that you still have to love yourself. I think that’s where all that motivation came from. To become a mother and then get back to playing at the highest level was very important for me because I feel that you have to be a happy person to be the best mother to your child. You still have to follow your dreams, you still have to love yourself and love what you do, and  all of this does not make you a bad mother, or a selfish person. I wanted to tell the world the same, and also, internally for me, it was important that I say and feel it. I was able to put in that work, still love myself, still love what I do, and dream after becoming a mother.

We won't watch you play again — the greatest woman tennis star India has ever seen. It's as hard to deal with for your fans as it must be for you. How hard was it for you to come to this decision?
I know it’s been a long time I have  been playing tennis, and people are very used to me; similarly, I am very used to it. But the fact is all good things come to an end, and I am very excited to start this new phase of my life. It’s not a decision I came to overnight, it’s not a decision I jumped to, it’s a decision that I have consciously thought over. There are many reasons for it (retirement) — whether it is to spend more time with my son, Izhaan; whether it is because my body is beat. I have been a professional tennis player for the last 20 years — I  mean there are so many aspects to it, but I am also not able to push myself the same way to be at the level I am playing at — emotionally, mentally and physically — so there are a bunch of reasons for my decision to retire. But honestly, I am very happy and content with everything I have been able to do.

Over the years, a lot of people have said a lot of things about you — anti-national, Pakistan's bahu, your marriage, to questions like 'when do you plan to settle?' How did you gather your strength to deal with all of this? 
I think the best part about me, and which is also my strength, is that I don’t really care what people say for most of it. I live life on my own terms, and I want what I want. So, for me, it wasn’t really about proving anything to anyone, it was about myself, my family, and my country. So, you know, they (the controversies) didn’t really matter. A lot of it was just noise around me, and I am very good at blocking it out.

How has motherhood changed you? And how has your mother been an influence and an inspiration to you?
Motherhood showed me selfless love that I could have for another human being, to be very honest. As athletes, we are quite self-centered, and I didn’t really think I had that love in me to give, but I feel motherhood puts a lot of things into perspective and it gives me that feeling, you know, to want so much for this little human being than I want for anybody else in this world, including myself. It’s the love that I have never felt before.

Pic credit: WTA
Pic credit: WTA

My mother has been like that towards us, and I think I finally understand what she always meant when she said that to us. My mother has been my biggest strength and my inspiration in so many ways. She is a powerful and strong person, and she has always helped us and made us believe that sky’s the limit. She is the one who pushed us towards our goals and our dreams.

A career spanning 20 long years comes to a close. What's next?
I am really excited that there are so many things happening — I am joining as a mentor with women’s Royal Challengers Bangalore cricket team. I would love to help future tennis, athletes, young women athletes, young girls who believe in me; and I will try to share my experience in whatever way possible. I really don’t know what’s in store exactly, but I do have my tennis academy which I would like to focus on and give it more time than I have been able to so far.

Please tell us about a moment in your career that you consider a defining moment, and why? And what would you like to tell young girls wanting to play sports?
It definitely has to be becoming No. 1 in the world in 2015. It was very special, and a huge moment for me, even though there are many moments in my 20 years’ career that I can pick, but clinching the World No. 1 spot was the moment that probably defines me in more ways than one.

To the young girls wanting to play sports, I would just like to say, believe in yourselves, back yourselves and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t achieve something, because if you put your heart and soul into it, the sky’s the limit. Remember that.


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