After Adria, people are going to think about returning to the tour: Sania Mirza
Putting tennis in the back seat despite having a court at her home in Hyderabad, Mirza spoke to HT about the challenges in finding the motivation for another return journey and the threat to the tour restarting next month after Novak Djokovic’s Adria Tour fallout.
Among the many fairytale comeback stories in Indian sport, Sania Mirza’s would rank prominently. Returning to professional tennis this January after a two-year maternity break, Mirza won the doubles title in her first tournament—the WTA Hobart International, partnering Nadiia Kichenok of Ukraine. The 33-year-old tasted another high by guiding India to a historic maiden Fed Cup playoffs spot in Dubai in March.
Even as the former doubles world No. 1 and six-time Grand Slam champion was gradually inching towards her optimum level, the COVID-19 pandemic applied breaks on the professional tour, and with it Mirza’s comeback season. Putting tennis in the back seat despite having a court at her home in Hyderabad, Mirza spoke to HT about the challenges in finding the motivation for another return journey and the threat to the tour restarting next month after Novak Djokovic’s Adria Tour fallout.
Slightly disappointed with the way things have unravelled in your comeback season?
It’s a tough time for everybody. I worked very hard to come back—not just to being fighting fit again to play but also to be able to compete and win at the highest level. So it was tough timing. But I think it’s a bit selfish to think only of that. We’re going through a pandemic, so we have to look at the larger picture. For me, tennis is not really a priority at this moment.
Do you look at this period as an extension of your previous break?
Not really. It takes a couple of months to come back (to peak level). Of course, I won the first tournament that I played but I don’t think I was playing my best tennis. By the time I reached the Fed Cup, I was playing really well and I was looking forward to playing the big tournaments. This is not an ideal situation for anybody and for me, having worked those one-and-a-half years to get back to playing, it’s not something that I’m too happy about.
How is this break different from your previous one?
It’s different in more ways than one. It is a pandemic and we’re not really thinking about tennis as much as we’re about being healthy, especially at this point of time with India hitting the peak. Right now, it’s just about being safe.
I did start playing tennis for a few weeks in the middle, but because the cases were rising so much, I didn’t want to take a chance. I can’t forget that I have a child in my house, and I have to be extra careful. But as far as my fitness is concerned, I’ve been able to keep that up. So hopefully when I start playing tennis, the muscle memory should let me come back smoothly. Even if I play for a couple of months before I decide to make that comeback and whenever tennis returns, I think it should be alright. Right now I’m just trying to work on my fitness. That’s what I realised when I had the break after Izhaan (Sania’s son)—that when I’m physically fit and the body is in good shape, tennis comes back a lot quicker.
Are you again willing to work your way up from scratch after a long hiatus, having done it once already?
I honestly do believe it is pretty hard, especially after I worked for that year-and-a-half to make the comeback and get to the stage of playing close to my highest level. So it is tough. But having said that, it’s more in the mind and if I’m able to take care of that, I’m confident that physically I will be able to do it. That’s why my focus is on staying physically active and fit even if I’m not getting to hit tennis balls. Right now, I am ready to go that extra mile to do that. I cannot tell you how I’ll feel in 2-3 months but at this point, I do feel that I’m ready to put in all that hard work again. I think it’s going to be easier than what I’ve already done, because I don’t have to lose 26 kilos like before!
You speak of the mind, so will you have to dig deeper to find that hunger to return to the court again?
It’s tough to find the motivation, because you actually don’t know when you’re going to return. So you don’t know what you’re working for. As tennis players or athletes, our life is so goal-oriented that we constantly are like, ‘okay we’re going to work towards this; we’re working towards coming back and winning this Grand Slam; going to the Olympics’ or whatever it may be. Everybody has their own set of goals. And I do believe that it is hard to put in the same amount of effort without having a goal; at least that’s how it is for me. But nothing comes easy, and if you want to return to that level, you will have to figure out a way to find that motivation. So I try to keep it different every day. My trick is to train in different ways. I do think that you need to dig a little bit deep because all this training that you’re putting in, you don’t know when are you actually going to put it in use.
Tennis is set to be different in the post-COVID world, with stringent social distancing norms even on court. Will it be weird? Not having crowds too…
I’m trying to be an optimist and I hope that they find a vaccination soon. Initially though it may be a little different. But we’re all getting used to the ‘new normal’, right? So it’ll just take time to get used to the changes. That said, I hope that this won’t be the normal for too long and we don’t have to think twice before hugging—not only on the tennis court but just friends or people you love. Having no crowds will definitely be weird and different as well. But we just have to learn to adapt to the new things.
Do you see the professional tour going ahead in August, especially after what happened with the Adria Tour? And was that a timely lesson for the tennis community in this situation?
From what I’ve heard, they are trying to (go ahead). Honestly, I don’t know if it’s going to happen. It’s difficult for me sitting here to predict something that’s going to happen across the world in two months and assess the situation there. But realistically, after what happened at the Adria Tour, I do believe that people are going to think about it (returning to the tour) a few times. This is a health risk, it is no joke. We’ll just have wait and watch, because it’s like we’re living day-to-day now.
I don’t know if I’m going to say that it is a timely lesson that the tennis community needed to learn by some of our top players in the world testing positive. I don’t think we needed that. I wish none of them had tested positive, because I know of at least 10-15 people in my close proximity who have tested positive, and a couple of them have not made it. So it is tough.
Most Indian players are against the idea of the US Open going ahead as scheduled in New York, more so without qualifying, half doubles draw and no mixed. What’s your take?
It’s difficult for any of us to say that ‘yes, we’re for it (US Open)’. We’re sitting in India, our borders are still shut and we don’t know when they’re going to open. We’ll have to wait and watch if it’s going to happen or not—it’s two months away and cases are still rising all over the world. But most definitely, without the qualifying, half the doubles draw and no mixed, it’s a tough call. The beauty of Grand Slams is the fact that you have mixed doubles and qualifying. I have played singles qualifying myself and qualified a couple of times in Grand Slams. It is an achievement in itself to just make it to that main draw after grinding in those three rounds.
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