In Tokyo, one last dance for Sania Mirza

  • Sania Mirza is gearing up for her fourth Olympic appearance at 34; dabbling between being a tennis pro and a mother of a two-year-old; giving her dreams of an elusive Olympic medal one last poke at reality.
Sania Mirza is gunning for glory in what could be her last Olympics. (Getty Images)
Sania Mirza is gunning for glory in what could be her last Olympics. (Getty Images)
Published on Jul 17, 2021 08:33 PM IST
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ByRutvick Mehta, Mumbai

In June, Sania Mirza posted a picture on her Instagram stories - walking at the Wimbledon wearing her tennis kit; hand-in-hand with son Izhaan; their backs to the camera. The caption read: the last dance.

Five years ago, when she came tantalisingly close to winning an Olympic medal in Rio, the thought of her still flaunting her moves on the tennis court ahead of the Tokyo Olympics was a far-fetched notion for Mirza.

“If somebody had told me at the last Olympics that I’ll have another shot at it, I would have laughed it off,” Mirza said. “But, well, here I am.”

So here she is - gearing up for her fourth Olympic appearance at 34; dabbling between being a tennis pro and a mother of a two-year-old; giving her dreams of an elusive Olympic medal one last poke at reality by entering the Tokyo Games with her protected doubles ranking of world No. 9 partnering Ankita Raina.

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It has been a physical and emotional roller-coaster for Mirza in the longer-than-usual period separating the two Olympics. In October 2017, a knee injury forced her to take a prolonged time off tennis, a year into which she and husband Shoaib Malik welcomed their baby boy. Then, Mirza took baby steps herself in her return to the sport, getting back to the professional tour in January last year and winning her comeback tournament in Hobart.

Then, a calf injury during the Australian Open made her hit pause again. Then, Covid-19 pressed upon the entire world to stop. Then, Covid struck Mirza; she recovered from the virus and returned to the tour in March this year. Then, the second wave that had countries closing their borders on Indians saw Mirza scrambling to get a UK visa for her son to be with her as she tuned-up for Tokyo on the grass-court swing of the tour.

It needed intervention at the ministry level for the UK government to issue last-minute visas for Izhaan and Mirza’s sister, who both had to undergo hotel quarantine while Mirza competed in the WTA Eastbourne ahead of the Wimbledon. Mirza didn’t get to see Izhaan for nine days.

“It’s just been difficult with the entire situation. I mean, it’s difficult enough not having a child to be in this and travel in a pandemic, but with a toddler it gets all the more challenging. But there’s not much we can do about it except accept it and deal with it the best way we can,” Mirza said.

Mirza will have to stay away from her son for a few more days in Tokyo too, for Izhaan will not accompany Mirza in the restricted environment of these Olympics. Why, then, is Mirza willing to go the extra mile in the final few laps of an already celebrated career in which she has scaled the summit of the world doubles rankings, won six Grand Slam titles and medals at the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games?

Part of the answer lies in the lone major title missing from the champion’s book, which Mirza was only a few good points away from scripting when she and Rohan Bopanna lost the mixed doubles semi-finals 6-2, 2-6, 3-10 against Americans Venus Williams and Rajeev Ram at the 2016 Games. The Indians then went down in the bronze medal match to the Czech pair of Radek Stepanek and Lucie Hradecka.

Five years later, Mirza finds purpose in that pain.

“It was one of the most painful moments of my life, to not be able to win that (Olympic) medal having come so close to it. It was just extremely, extremely painful. Which in itself is motivating enough for me now. And if you’re not motivated for the Olympics, to compete for your country, then why are you even playing tennis? I’m definitely very motivated for Tokyo,” Mirza said.

Men’s doubles and mixed have been India’s brightest Olympic medal hopes in tennis in recent times, with Mirza being the crucial cog in the latter. However, she will not get a chance to better the bitter Rio memories this time in mixed along with close friend Bopanna, as Bopanna and Divij Sharan have failed to make the cut in men’s doubles.

In Tokyo, Mirza will be in the company of Raina, who has created a few firsts in doubles this year: a Grand Slam debut, a WTA title, a spot in the top-100 rankings. It’s a territory none of Mirza’s previous three Olympic women’s doubles partners had managed to enter; Sunitha Rao (2008 Beijing) had a highest doubles ranking of 108th, Rushmi Chakravarthi (2012 London) 252nd and Prarthana Thombare (2016 Rio) 125th. Reason why Mirza believes the Indian women’s pair will be more than a mere participant at these Games.

“Ankita is definitely, at least in ranking, the best that I’ve played with from India. She has been playing well over the last few years, and when she plays for the country, she tends to go up a few notches. Usually when we have gone in women’s doubles (at the Olympics), it’s more of a representation rather than with any expectations to win. But this time, we have a fighting chance. We will be the underdogs, but it’s going to be fun. And it’s great to go into something with a chance,” Mirza said.

The two have also made a conscious effort to gel well on and off the court, a welcome change from the great Indian tennis controversies that have previously preceded the Games. Raina and Mirza spent a week together at the latter’s home in Dubai in April before the Billie Jean King Cup World Group play-offs tie (for which the Mirza-Raina combo played a role in earning India the historic qualification last March). The two also spent some time together in the UK while playing - and competing in mixed doubles - at Wimbledon.

“I’ve known Ankita for a long time now, but it was nice to spend time and train together in Dubai. It was a good thing for both of us to get to know each other better and also to get to know each other’s games a little better. It does help with the chemistry,” Mirza said.

With finer chemistry and a fighting chance, Mirza has an air of optimism around her last dance at the Olympic stage.

“There were a lot of champions at the Olympics that no one expected were ever going to win,” Mirza said. “So I do think that whenever we step on the court - whether it was Leander (Paes) and I or Mahesh (Bhupathi) and I or Rohan and myself - we always have a chance. Because we’ve been there, we’ve played at the highest level for a long time, we’ve won Grand Slams. So yes, we have a shot. And I would like to believe that I have it in me to play well at the Olympics.”

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Wednesday, January 19, 2022