India's Sania Mirza in action at the 2020 Hobart International. (Getty Images)
India's Sania Mirza in action at the 2020 Hobart International. (Getty Images)

Sania Mirza ready to rebuild after Covid-19 recovery

  • India’s former world doubles No.1 looks at her season ahead with Tokyo Olympics an added motivation.
By Rutvick Mehta, Mumbai
PUBLISHED ON FEB 28, 2021 08:41 PM IST

Sania Mirza has watched a lot of tennis lately, following the Australian Open on TV. “More than I’ve watched in a while,” she says with a chuckle. Time to play now.

Returning to the professional tour after the pandemic-induced break and having herself recovered from Covid-19 in January, Mirza will play the WTA Qatar Total Open in Doha starting on Monday. Using her protected ranking of world No. 9 to get into the tournament, the Indian will partner 40th-ranked Andreja Klepac of Slovenia. They will open their campaign against Kichenok twins Lyudmyla and Nadiia of Ukraine.

Getting back to tennis in January 2020 after a two-year maternity break, the six-time Grand Slam doubles and mixed champion won her first tournament on return at Hobart International. The pandemic forced the season to be suspended a couple of months later, forcing Mirza to bide her time again. In this chat, the 34-year-old former world No. 1 talks about the physical and mental toll the virus has taken, what she expects from her latest comeback and why the Tokyo Olympics remains a motivating factor.

Excerpts:

How are you feeling health wise now?

I’m feeling fine now. It took me a couple of weeks to get back. I didn’t have major symptoms but I was still feeling pretty tired post Covid, feeling like I was catching my breath and stuff like that. You don’t actually realise what it is doing to your body even if you don’t have any symptoms. I got back to the gym 10 days after I recovered. The first couple of days were tougher than normal. I did a couple of hour-long runs just to test myself, and I actually felt OK. I then gradually got back to full training - working out for a couple of hours and playing tennis for two-and-a-half hours daily.

How challenging was the period mentally?

When I had Covid it was pretty hard. Shoaib (Malik, her cricketer husband) was in a different country when I tested positive, and I immediately had to isolate. My son (Izhaan, 2) was with me in Dubai; my parents or nobody else were there. The nanny also tested positive a couple of days later. So Izhaan was all alone, and my sister had to fly down overnight. It’s the uncertainty of it which is really scary. Nobody really knows how your body is going to react - you feel like you’re getting better and then the next morning you feel really sick. But for me, that one night where Izhaan had to be alone with a house help that he hadn’t been around with for a long time was really hard, even though we were in the same apartment. It’s been tough on him as well. He didn’t see me for 11 days. Since then, he has been clinging to me. It’s almost like he feels I’m going to leave again!

Do you feel ready to compete again on the tour, physically and tennis-wise?

Yes. I’ve been training for more than three weeks now, and I feel alright. But I don’t think we can expect a miracle where I go on the court and win the first tournament back again! (laughs) I mean, it may happen, but I think the chances are lesser this time. It’ll take me a few weeks to get back into it, tennis-wise. But generally, I feel like I’m hitting the ball well.

You’ve made many comebacks from injuries and also after becoming a mother. What are you looking to get from this one?

Look, I’m not thinking on the lines of “this is what I want to achieve”. Of course, the point of coming back is that I feel like I have a high level of tennis left in me. That was apparent when I came back last year and won the first tournament. So I still have it in me to win tournaments at that level. Physically if I’m able to stay away from injuries, I believe there’s still some tennis in me.

And the (Tokyo) Olympics is something that is at the back of my mind. The last Olympics we came really close to winning the medal (Mirza and Rohan Bopanna lost the mixed doubles bronze medal match in Rio). When I close the chapter of my book, so to say, the only thing I’d say is I’m missing an Olympic medal from everything that I was able to achieve. So if I can give myself another shot at it, I will be really proud.

So the Olympics still remain a motivation for you at this stage of your career?

My aim is to try and get better every day. It’s not about this tournament or that. Can I be better than being No. 1 in the world? I don’t know. I don’t know if I can get back to that level again. But I have to try. More than ever now, especially after I made the comeback last year, won the tournament and then tore my calf; I felt it was a bit anticlimactic for me. But I thought if I’m still able to represent India at this level for a couple of years, then why not? And my son gives me that motivation. He inspires me.

The last break came when you were restarting on the tour. Is it more challenging to find rhythm again from scratch in such stop-start scenarios?

Hundred per cent. I had worked really hard to get myself back in that playing position, get strong and be good at that level again. Then the whole world stopped, so I can’t make it only about myself. But I did feel quite affected because now it’s been a whole year again and I haven’t been able to play because of more issues than one. I have to be a mother as well now, not just an athlete. I have to think about how do I travel with him, how do I take him into bubbles and many such things. But hopefully we can get back to normal as soon as possible.

So, will you be comfortable with Australian Open-like quarantine situations going ahead, if that is case in Tokyo as well?

I can’t talk about what’s going to happen in five months. But I wasn’t comfortable with it in Australia, which was one of the reasons I decided to not go in the first place. My son is two, and it’s difficult for me to confine him to one room over two weeks. But I don’t know; in five months Izhaan will be a bit older, so maybe we can figure a few things out.

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