Sania Mirza: How the Mirza family raised India’s greatest female tennis player and a national icon

As the dust settles on Sania Mirza’s retirement and it starts to sink in that we won’t watch her play again, the belief is firmed up that there won’t be another Sania. She was much like Aamir Khan’s character in Three Idiots. A once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon who came as a breath of fresh air for Indian tennis. And that’s what begs the questions: How did Sania happen? What made Sania ‘The Sania’? How could a middle-class family from Hyderabad with no background in elite sport produce a champion like her?

“Like I’ve alluded to in my autobiography: ‘In the summer holidays, we went to Bengaluru to spend a few weeks with my father’s uncle. It was Wimbledon time and my parents were watching Steffi Graf play Jana Novotna in the 1993 women’s singles final on television. When I walked into the room, Dad looked at me indulgently and said to mom, ‘Hey, what if someday Sania becomes a professional tennis player and gets to play at Wimbledon on Centre Court?’

“Everyone in the room chuckled at the outrageous suggestion. In those days, it was quite unthinkable, the idea of playing tennis and actually making a career out of it, much less being a world-class women’s player. But my mother, partly because she was naive about the game, took to the idea. She went teary-eyed and a smile brightened her face.

“Mom knew exactly how important sport was to Dad. She understood very little about tennis then, but having watched the excitement of Wimbledon unfold on television, she knew what a major achievement it would be if her daughter actually made it to the famed Centre Court. ‘If Sania has a chance of playing at Wimbledon, I won’t leave a stone unturned to make it happen,’ she said, rather prophetically,” Sania said. “It is exactly what Nasima (Sania’s mother) did,” said Imran Mirza (Sania’s father). “That’s Nasima for you.”

While Imran was the hands-on coach, Nasima was the protective shield. Imran never said a word or show dejection when Sanila lost a close match. He was happy if she put in her best effort. “This is what made Sania the player that she is. She was able to absorb pressure knowing it was her job to give her best. The result wasn’t something she ever worried about and it allowed her to play freely during critical points,” said Imran.

“Producing a top-quality tennis player from our background wasn’t easy. You needed to think out of the box. And that’s where Nasima came in. She had travelled and worked in London and Dubai before marriage. This not only enabled her to travel with Sania but having worked in the travel industry she was a wizard at getting flight bookings at amazing prices at the last moments, which is exactly what we needed.

“When we were initially travelling by trains for junior national tournaments, we were entitled to 80 per cent discount and Nasima would spend up to 6-7 hours in queues to get the train bookings done at discounted prices for the entire twomonth circuit. Also, Nasima virtually gave up spending on herself and most of what we earned went into Sania’s tennis expenses.”While Sania was learning the ropes of tennis, Imran was undergoing his own transformation into a coach. He didn’t have much background in tennis coaching, he still managed to mentor Sania through a successful career. How? “While Sania was developing as a tennis player, I had the good fortune of working with some of the world’s best coaches and that gave me the confidence to coach Sania over the last decade and more,” Imran said.

“I had worked alongside Tony Roche (while he was simultaneously coaching Roger Federer), (the late) Bob Brett (who coached Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic among others) and Sven Groeneveld (who coached Maria Sharapova). They all added to Sania’s game and I learnt the finer points and nuances of tennis from these coaches.

“I then used that knowledge to adapt those techniques that I had learnt from them to suit the Indian body. This is where I believe I was able to get the best out of Sania as a tennis player.” Sister Anam too had a tangible contribution. “Anam’s biggest contribution was that she grew up as a single-parent child as one of the parents was always travelling. She was very adjusting even when as a 3-year-old she was bundled into the car as we drove to various tournaments in India. For hours, she would be locked up in the room with a nanny while the three of us were at the courts. Anam always took a lot of pride (she still does) in her sister’s success and was ever ready to do whatever it took for Sania to succeed,” said Nasima.

An old African proverb says that it ‘takes a village to raise a child’. Creating a champion requires no less of a collaborative effort. While it was her talent and smarts that took Sania where no Indian woman had gone before, it’s impossible to ignore the contributions of her family. More than anything else, Sania’s story illustrates the power of dreams, especially when individuals strive to make them reality. The entire family can look back with so much pride on the Indian tennis fairy tale that they scripted.

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