Our tennis star drops her shield and sets the record straight on matters of the heart and other subjects that touch a raw nerve
You can’t use the ‘F’ word in tennis ace Sania Mirza’s hearing unless you’re begging for an icy comeback. I learned that when I began to ask her if she’s a feminist and got cut off midway through my question.
“The fact that ‘feminist’ is a word means we live in a man’s world,” says Mirza. “Why do we need that word? I don’t think I am a feminist. I am a person who thinks the normal way about equality. It’s about having equal opportunities and rights. All basic things and I don’t get why I need to be a feminist to say these things.”
I’m 29-year-old Mirza’s third media interaction of the day, a day that’s going to be filled with many more Q&A sessions with journalists interested in her autobiography, Ace Against Odds.
She’s just flown in from Mumbai. She’s tired. She’s also hungry, having missed lunch, so perhaps that’s why the ordinarily guarded sportsperson is so open about her life, loves, and beliefs.
She rages a little about the need for the existence of the F word and then adds: “I am actually one of the most traditional people you will meet. I got married to Shoaib (Malik) at 23 when people told me I was too young.”
Sania Mirza is no stranger to controversy. But her marriage six years ago to Malik, a Pakistani, and a cricketer at that, still has India’s more jingoistic citizens fulminating.
Though Mirza’s parents were less concerned about their future son-in-law’s nationality than they were about their daughter’s confidence that Shoaib was indeed ‘the one’, most of the rest of the country had an opinion on the matter, and it wasn’t a good one.
And, after all, what’s a good sub-continental love story without mass hysteria, invasion of privacy and an ‘unpatriotic’ protagonist? While Mirza admits that both parties anticipated a few ruffled feathers, they “were not ready for what came our way”.
Overzealous media personnel thronged the Mirza household, rendering the family members captive for two weeks. Recapping the emotionally sapping episode, Mirza writes how she did not see sunlight for 10 days as the windows, even the smallest of vents and peepholes, had to be covered.
“Every few hours there was new stuff on TV, a soap opera. I was amazed by how the media was behaving. A lot of people I knew were ready to do anything, to make news out of it. At that time they didn’t realise there were families involved and probably two people in love and wanting to get married. It was pretty simple in our heads. It was amazing that other people weren’t able to see it like that.”
The only concern Mirza would answer was her parents’ question. Yes, indeed, she assured them. Shoaib is ‘the one’.
Their first encounter at an Indian restaurant on the Hobart waterfront (in Australia) with the then Pakistan cricket captain kicked off the romance, and Mirza says “the decision to get married came naturally to me”.
“As a girl, the first thing that attracts you to someone is their looks. But it was also his simplicity. He was the captain and God knows how big cricket is in this part of the world. But he remained extremely down to earth,” she says.
Being India’s daughter and Pakistan’s daughter-in-law was never going to be easy for Mirza, so the couple moved out of the sub-continent altogether to live in Dubai. “All’s well that ends well,” Mirza says with a smile.
Blame it on the movies. Hero versus villain. The good cop and the bad cop. A femme fatale as opposed to the girl next door. Reel life is simple. Real life, though, cannot be neatly classified into binaries.
In the Zone
Though shades of grey are now being incorporated in celluloid narratives, it is hard to assign a shade to Sania Mirza. If it were up to the media, she would probably be gunmetal grey rather than silver, thanks to an oft-turbulent relationship that has been a whole lot about love, but a lot more about hate. It’s why she has learnt to always keep her guard up.
But an autobiography might be different, I think. So I ask her about writing Ace Against Odds. “I’m tired of answering who’s next and I’m tired of saying I don’t know,” Mirza says. “Hopefully, this is the base for a parent to say, ‘well she has done it like this, so hopefully we can get our kid to do it as well’.”
To pass on the knowledge would be a reason logical enough for the six-time Grand Slam champion. But the book is also about setting the record straight. Mirza believes she owed it to herself, and to the people, to tell her story in her own words.
“I come across as extremely tough to approach. But it is not all stone. If people read the book they will be surprised that I also have a very soft side to me. I also cry often. Not in front of people but when I feel sad. It’s very easy for me to watch a film and cry,” she says.
Which was the last film that made her cry?
“Just day before yesterday, I was watching Baabul on TV and I was crying,” Mirza blurts, then guffaws. “Hey! You can’t blame me. Everybody cries for that movie. Baabul… and Baghban.”
Her toughness, her emotional armour, does not exist without reason. Mirza keeps the shield up “because you have to, when you grow up in the limelight like I did”.
She speaks with the benefit of hindsight. The country’s first bona fide female sporting icon’s rise coincided with the growth of electronic media. For those looking for rating points and headlines, Mirza was a golden goose.
It began with the on-court exploits. In only her freshman year on tour, Mirza put up a fight against the likes of Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova and became the first Indian woman to win a WTA title and break into the top 50.
Soon, Mirza was squarely in the spotlight and everything she did made news. The tennis apparel, which was thoroughly standard fare. The nose ring, which became an “ornament of social defiance”. The tongue-in-cheek T-shirts, which became a symbol of iconoclasm. And Mirza, the nation’s obsession, quickly became an icon of modernity and rebellion.
“It was tough for a 17-year-old, who was a bit chubby and had pimples, to grow up in front of the world. The criticism and the praises were both overwhelming. There are moments when I broke down and didn’t want anything to do with anyone,” she says.
She recounts one such moment early in her career. Back home from a productive though taxing tour, Mirza was in no mood for human interaction when she had to accede to yet another media commitment. That the photographer was from Time magazine was of little consequence. She bawled, wept the exhaustion out of her and the shoot went on. Mirza was featured as one of the Asian heroes of 2005.
“I can laugh things off now,” says Mirza, when asked if things still get on her nerves. “I’ve grown up. At 18, I was achieving amazing things and was able to be very good at what I was doing. But at that age you’re just becoming who you are. Today, at 29, going on 30 in a few months – as painful as that sounds – I know exactly who I am. I can laugh things off now.”
Mirza however asserts that the toughness need not come at the cost of an individual’s identity or impulses. “When a girl picks up the racquet, she doesn’t have to be solid as iron. There can still be a girl side to you where you are emotional and mushy and everything, and still be strong on court.”
She remembers how she was bullied off the court by her young cousins who’d say, “Oh you’re a girl, you can’t do sport”. She admits it was less discrimination, more juvenile leg-pulling, but is quick to add that the seemingly innocent mentality is dangerous.
“Girls should feel comfortable doing what they want. I’ve always felt very strongly about it,” says Mirza, the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador for South Asia. “I’ve been very vocal about gender equality, following one’s dreams and stereotyping. It is a sensitive topic and you cannot be loved by everyone when you speak about it. But I know it’s the right thing to do in my heart and that’s why I do it.”
Right now, the right thing is following her heart. And her heart has taken her to the World No. 1 spot in women’s doubles, won her five Grand Slams in two years, and a place in the Indian tennis team to the Olympics for the third time.
‘Settling down’ is also in Mirza’s heart, but later.
“I do want to have a family. I want to cook. I want to do all that, but they aren’t the only things I want to do. I don’t think women can only be defined by how well they cook, or sing or how many kids they have. Though it’s part of who we are as women, it’s not our only job,” asserts Mirza. “I have goals and I want to achieve them.”
From HT Brunch, August 14, 2016
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