For Sania Mirza, belief to take on the best is what matters most
- Winning the Ostrava Open doubles partnering China’s Zhang Shuai was the six-time grand slam winner’s second title since her comeback after a three-year maternity break.
After her first-round doubles exit in the US Open partnering Coco Vandeweghe, Sania Mirza posted a long, emotional message on her Instagram handle. She wrote on the feeling of love and hate and “doubt and anger sometimes when you don’t win”, on the questions that at times have no answers except to “pick ourselves up after a tough loss”, and showing up every day regardless of the result.
Over the next few days, a fair distance from the razzmatazz of Flushing Meadows, the six-time Slam champion showed up in some nondescript courts of Brooklyn, putting in hours of training in search of her best again at 34.
“Was I disappointed (after the US Open loss)? Sure. But I was not disheartened,” Mirza said. “As an athlete, you dust yourself off and get up. That’s exactly what I had written (in the post). We work so hard to be in a position that we are in, and if we don’t win matches, of course there is disappointment. But in our sport, things change on a weekly basis.”
THE OSTRAVA HIGH
Things changed less than four weeks later for Mirza. The Indian won the WTA 500 Ostrava Open doubles title on Sunday with China’s Zhang Shuai, her 43rd WTA title overall, first of the season and second since her comeback in 2020 after a three-year maternity break. It took a while coming, for Mirza’s last trophy was in her first tournament on return in Hobart in January 2020. Since then, it’s been a pause-play, up-and-down year and a half due to injuries and the pandemic.
“It’s great to win such a big tournament. It gives me a lot of confidence. This is the first time I’ve been able to play 4-5 weeks in a row and I felt like I needed those matches - win or lose - to get back into the rhythm,” she said.
Mirza played a couple of tournaments in March before returning to the tour ahead of Wimbledon in June. After exiting in the opening round at the Tokyo Olympics with Ankita Raina, she began her hard-court season in Cincinnati, getting into five tournaments on the run thereafter. She reached the final of the WTA 250 event in Cleveland with Christina McHale heading into the US Open and made the quarter-finals of the Luxembourg Open with Zhang before the Ostrava triumph. With lots of matches, some victories and a title behind her, Mirza feels she is close to regaining her peak.
“I am very critical of myself. I believe that I still have a little way to go before that best level. But I do see glimpses of it more often than not now. I’m getting there,” she said.
Mirza is also getting closer to the upper echelons of the rankings chart again; her protected doubles ranking of world No 9 - it gave her automatic entry into the bigger events - is due to end this season. The Ostrava title saw her leap to world No 62 from 110 before the event and from 239 at the start of the year. It’s the first time Mirza has returned to the top 75 of the world rankings since August 2018, two months before she took the break.
MAKING PRESENCE FELT
For a player who has finished four straight seasons inside the top-10 spot that includes a run as world No. 1 from April 2015 to January 2017, climbing her way from way down the ladder must feel different. For Mirza, the drive is about reaching her top game again, not rankings.
“I know that if somebody sees me in the opposite side of the court or in the draw in the first round, they’re not going to be happy about it, no matter what my ranking is,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re 1000 in the world and just come back or 10 in the world, it is whether I believe I have the level to compete against the best. What drives me is to know that I still have that fight and grit left in me; to see how far I can go with this feeling and see how many more tournaments I can win. That feeling is something I chase. And until I have that in me, I’m going to play.”
Mirza isn’t sure how long it will last. “If you ask me if I’ll have that feeling in eight months, I don’t know,” she said. Reason why she wants to take it week by week without looking even as far (close rather) as the start of the next season. After a 20-hour air and road journey from Ostrava to Chicago, she will return to court with that feeling at the ongoing Chicago Fall Tennis Classic and the WTA Indian Wells next week, partnering Zhang in both events. “I’m happy to be where I am today; back in the top of things and back to winning tournaments again. Let’s see where it goes.”