Sania Mirza leaves no stone unturned
By her own admission, Sania Mirza hasn’t watched a lot of tennis over the last couple of years. That is because the few times she did, she would invariably be reminded of how much she missed being on court. “It would irritate me a little bit,” Mirza says.
One of India’s most decorated sportspersons had to press the pause button on her tennis career after the WTA China Open in October, 2017. At that point, it was due to a knee injury. However, a year into the forced time off, Mirza and her husband, Pakistan cricketer Shoaib Malik, welcomed a baby boy Izhaan.
Now, more than two years since she last stepped on court as a professional tennis player, the six-time Grand Slam champion and former world doubles No. 1 is ready to hit the reset button.
The 33-year-old will return to the Tour at the WTA Hobart International starting on January 11, before heading to the Australian Open, where she will partner Ukranian Nadiia Kichenok in doubles and American Rajeev Ram in mixed doubles.
“One of the main reasons that I’m playing again is because I missed tennis so much,” Mirza tells HT from Hyderabad. “I missed the feeling of winning, missed the feeling of competing, missed just getting that adrenaline flowing again on the court.
“To be honest, I could have hung up my boots a couple of years ago and said I’ve achieved everything that I wanted to, and I’ve had a great career. But the simple fact is I feel that I still have tennis left in me,” she adds. That thought, however, was the last thing on her mind while she was preparing to become a first-time mother.
“When we decided to start a family, I was prepared mentally that I may never come back and play tennis again. I didn’t know how my body would react, I didn’t know how I would feel emotionally and physically. There were a lot of unknowns,” Mirza says.
One of those unknowns was gaining weight during her pregnancy. “I was just breathing and putting on weight. It was weird,” she says. And so her primary objective after delivery wasn’t to think about getting back to playing tennis; it was getting back to being fit.
“The day after I gave birth, I decided that I wanted to lose 23 kg. For me, it was more about being healthy again, that was my first thought process. And I managed to lose 26 kg in four months.
“Once I did that, I said, you know what, my body feels almost like it used to be, which was strong and lean. And then I thought, let me try and hit some balls. I started with once a week, then twice a week, and I kept enjoying it. After a couple of months, I realised my body was handling everything quite well, better than I had expected. That’s when I found that motivation and inspiration, where I was sure that I wanted to make a comeback,” she adds.
A big reason, Mirza feels, her body has bounced back sooner than usual is because she remained active during her pregnancy. She says she walked up to 5 km a day till two weeks before her delivery. Why, she even hit a few balls on the court for 20 minutes two nights prior to it.
Not everything was smooth sailing though. The big challenge came immediately after she welcomed Izhaan into the world through the caesarean section. Mirza’s doctor would push her to go for short walks, but just getting up from bed was too painful. Mirza clearly remembers when she first hopped on a treadmill, three weeks after the delivery. “I promise you, after five minutes on it, I was like, ‘I don’t know how I’m ever going to get fit again, forget play tennis’,” she recalls.
From there to getting back to training for five hours a day—like she does now in Hyderabad—Mirza already feels a winner again.
“Any woman who has been pregnant will tell you how difficult it is just to get back into normal shape, or even mentally, because there are so many hormonal changes. To be able to go through all that and put myself in a position to be able to compete again, I’m already very proud of myself. Not just getting back to looking fit, but also feeling fit, and feeling fighting fit to be a professional athlete,” she says.
Mirza often made it a point to show glimpses of her comeback struggles to the outside world through social media. She hopes to convey her message to the other Indian women, not necessarily sportswomen alone.
“I still get questions about, ‘Oh, how are you going to manage with Izhaan?’ Women are often put on this guilt trip that once you become a mother, you have to stop your life. Of course, life changes, but it doesn’t make you a bad mother just because you’re following your dreams as well. I felt that maybe somewhere, if I can inspire even one woman to do what she loves after starting a family, it will be wonderful,” she says.
As for her personally, Mirza can’t wait to get back on the Tour again, because it’ll be different this time. Unlike in the past when Mirza would often return to an empty hotel room after the umpteen training sessions and matches, she’ll now have Izhaan for company.
“A tennis player’s life is extremely lonely, so I’m glad in many ways that I have Izhaan now. It will be amazing to have Izhaan be with me, watch me play and cheer for me. It’s going to be really special for me as well as him,” she says.
On the court, Mirza would love to add to her 42 career titles and six Slams, but she realises she is merely taking baby steps in her comeback journey. More than anything else though, Mirza simply wishes to relive what she has been unable to for the last couple of years.
“Whatever happens in my career after this, whether I win a lot of matches and titles or I don’t win anything at all, everything is a bonus. Obviously, every athlete wants to win. But I’m coming back for the joy of the sport, because I want to enjoy playing tennis again,” she says.
Would love to partner Bopanna again
Mirza said playing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is part of her comeback plans, but it will depend on various factors, including how her body reacts once she begins competing again. “Definitely, Tokyo Olympics is at the back of my mind. It’s not my main focus right now, which is to get back to playing and being healthy. But if I’m able to put myself in a position to compete at the Olympics again, I’ll be extremely proud of myself,” she said. At the 2016 Rio Games, Mirza and her partner Rohan Bopanna narrowly missed out on a mixed doubles medal, losing the bronze medal play-off match. Mirza said she would love to pair up with Bopanna again should the opportunity arise.
“Having not won that medal last time having come so close was very painful. So, it would be amazing to play with him (Bopanna) again, if we could put ourselves in that position and compete for a medal again,” she said.