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Game, set, match

Sania Mirza is a sportsperson with a conscience

Devdan Mitra Published 13.02.22, 12:48 AM
Sania Mirza

Sania Mirza Wikimedia Commons

Unless she has a change of mind, the 2022 season will be Sania Mirza’s final tryst with the tennis court. It has been a remarkable journey for the 35-year-old from Hyderabad ever since she shot into the limelight as a teenager when she won a Women’s Tennis Association singles title in her hometown in February 2005, the first Indian woman tennis player to do so. Since then, she has taken on tough adversaries on the tennis court, struggled with, and overcome, injuries, fought fatwas, and dared the orthodoxy on what she believed was her right to choice. And thumbed her nose, and the nose-ring she made fashionable, at those who had been fuming at her decision to marry a Pakistani, the cricketer, Shoaib Malik, in 2010.

Amid all this, she managed to play the sport she loved with distinction. Her cabinet is packed with trophies from the grand slams and ATP tournaments — she was the world’s top-ranked women’s doubles player for 91 weeks. Her doubles partner in many successful tournaments, the Swiss former world number one, Martina Hingis, described Sania’s tennis as “magical, almost mystical”.


Tennis has been a male preserve in India. The likes of Ramanathan Krishnan and his son, Ramesh, Vijay and Anand Amritraj, Jaidip Mukerjea, Premjit Lall, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi have been the fancied names. Women usually didn’t have the same access to the resources and funding available to men, which Sania has often pointed out. Before her advent, only two Indian women had competed internationally, Nirupama Mankad, the wife of the former cricketer, Ashok Mankad, and Nirupama Vaidyanathan. Coached and mentored by her father, Imran Mirza, Sania’s success is also the success of her family, which made enormous sacrifices to help her realize her potential.

In a 2014 interview to the BBC’s Sportshour, Sania had attributed this lack of women’s participation in sports to “a norm in India of what a woman should and shouldn’t do”. In her journey to success, Sania had to break down gender, social-cultural and religious barriers. She is the rare non-cricketer athlete from India who achieved superstardom. And no Indian cricket star has had to endure what Sania had to at the start of her career. Then a couple of months away from her nineteenth birthday, Sania was en route to Calcutta for a tennis meet (Sunfeast Open) in September 2005 when news broke that a little-known group of radical clerics had threatened to stop her from playing unless she traded her ‘indecent’ clothes — read T-shirt and skirt — on the tennis court for long tunics and headscarves, like many Muslim women athletes wear. A security blanket was thrown around Sania and the tournament passed without a hitch, but for the first time, Sania decided to make a statement of choice — she played in shorts.

Armed with an effervescent personality, she soon became a darling of the media. If she was still holding back her words, she wasn’t afraid to make statements with her style, wearing T-shirts that had catch-phrases like ‘I’m cute’, ‘You can either agree with me — or be wrong’ and ‘Well behaved girls rarely make history’ emblazoned on them. And as success came her way, Sania became bolder with her public statements on what she believed was right — be it on gender issues or nationalism or even Islam. Her courage to challenge the religious critics and silence them is a lesson in how to tackle radical elements head-on.

Over the decades, several sportspersons and athletes have stepped out in support of or in opposition to many different social, religious and political issues. Be it the American sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, whose Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics was one of the most powerful statements for race equality or Muhammad Ali’s refusal to join the Vietnam War, which stoked a debate in the United States of America on the military campaign.

Muslim women athletes from more conservative societies have also fought for their rights, questioning the apparent paradox between sporting ideals for inclusion and policies and practices that are exclusionary. For example, some Olympic sports’ dress code policies require much of the body to be uncovered. This goes against the principles of those Muslim women wishing to adhere to religious requirements on modesty.

As Sania has emphasized, it is a matter of choice. The sisters, Nada and Najla Al Jeraiwi, of Kuwait are devoted triathlon competitors. They wear hijabs under their helmets for the bicycle portion and body suits for the swimming portion. Ibtihaj Muhammad, the US Olympic bronze medallist in 2016, chose fencing because it allowed her to compete with the hijab — the Barbie ‘Shero’ doll, which wears a hijab fencing outfit and carries a sabre, is modelled on her. Iranian women won a battle with Fifa in 2012 on their right to wear headscarves.

This right to choice is what the students in Karnataka are demanding following the ban on the hijab imposed in some educational institutions in the state.

Sania has not been afraid to speak out on the difficulties that women face in India in contrast to the silence many sportspersons, especially when in their prime, opt for on social justice or political issues given the risks involved. For example, when she was appointed United Nations Women’s goodwill ambassador for the South Asian region in November 2014, she was frank about gender inequality in India. She spoke of women who “have not been allowed to follow their dreams because they were a girl [sic]” and even stated that many of the controversies she faced in her career were “because I am woman”. Not just social issues. Sania even lashed out at the All India Tennis Association, accusing it of “chauvinism” for using her as a “bait” during the 2012 London Olympics to pacify a disgruntled Leander Paes, who did not wish to team up with Bhupathi. The only time she appeared a bit frazzled was in 2008 when she was accused of insulting the Indian flag at the Hopman Cup in Perth and a court case was lodged against her in Bhopal. Sania vehemently denied “insulting” the flag but admitted that for a “fleeting moment” she did consider quitting the sport.

Two years later, she would face another test off the court when she decided to marry the Pakistani cricketer, Shoaib Malik. She was accused of becoming ‘Pakistan’s daughter-in-law’ and faced yet another fatwa for ‘living together’ before marriage. The way Sania stood behind her fiancé in spite of the raging controversy surrounding him being married to another woman shows how unwavering she is in her support of her convictions. And when there have been whispers of sportspersons being distracted by the presence of spouses and partners on tours, Sania and Shoaib have kept their professional lives independent.

Amid all this, Sania never lost sight of her goals. As the former tennis star, Mukerjea, said: “She has been a trendsetter. When she started off not too many women took to tennis in India in a serious way. She inspired Indian girls not just to take up tennis but also to come out and make a career choice... gave them the courage to do what they wanted.

“Apart from tennis, she displayed a lot of guts. Coming from the minority community she did face a lot of flak for playing a sport, for wearing a skirt on court. There have been a number of other controversies too. But she handled them very well and never lost sight of her goals.”

As Sania Mirza prepares to walk into the sunset, she should feel proud of her legacy of having been a powerful voice for women, not just Muslim women. And for making a statement that to be a successful sportsperson, it’s not necessary to bury one’s conscience.

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