The dent in the carpet is gone, the impression her fury made has passed. It is late October, and just a few feet from where we sit in the hallway of the Singapore Indoor Stadium is where Sania Mirza’s racket landed yesterday and broke. She would like to reassure you that “every close match you don’t break furniture" and she would like to clarify that she isn’t recommending this method. But this was the WTA Finals, the semi-finals, the end of the season, tiredness, emotion, desperation, ambition and then shattering defeat. The racket just had to go, please understand. “It makes you feel a little better," she laughs.
In this quiet Singapore corridor, the best women’s doubles player in the world is telling stories. First, about passion; then about signals. Tennis doubles pairs are like most marriages: If their communication is off, they divorce and move on. So partners talk on court, covering their mouths as they share tactical secrets in case opponents 78ft away can lip-read that their serve is going “wide". But the rest is a quick signalling which takes place behind her back as her partner serves.
If she’s going to cross and intercept, her hand is open; if her fist is clenched, she’s staying; if her fingers move, it means she’s going to fake.
Nothing is left unclear because this is Sania Mirza. She will say her piece. Always. In a sometimes monosyllabic sports world, she utters entire sentences. Even paragraphs. She will lean forward and look you in the eye and find a tone somewhere between flat and forceful, which is a bit like her forehand, a stroke of pulverizing beauty which she can’t “teach" you. Her body is hyper-mobile, which means that like ballet dancers it assumes positions you probably can’t, and this, along with seeing the ball early, and taking it in front of her body, and her racket-head speed, gives her stroke something beyond velocity. It gives it a sound, a certain note which you instinctively recognize. It’s called pure timing.
Mirza is sure of herself, a sort of sureness that’s very particular to athletes who feel their experiences are unique, a sureness that can smell a bit like conceit. You don’t have to like her, but with 4.69 million Twitter followers, this Hyderabadi Xena will flick your opinion away like a piece of wandering lint. But you have to admire her conviction, have to appreciate how she’s fought against sexism and bigotry, have to recognize that underneath the sometimes-made-up celebrity is an articulate athlete who is a gender warrior simply because she lives her life on her terms.
Mirza rather enjoys being famous, but she also uses her fame. Just by speaking out, she is using her reach and scrapping for her tribe. “Every female athlete, no matter what level they play at, in this part of the world...you’re fighting a certain stereotype every single day, from the day you are born, in trying to choose what you want to do.
“I happened to become extremely famous being a female athlete...so I do feel a responsibility. Because I feel I have the power that people are going to listen when I say that it’s OK not to be able to cook and it’s OK to pick up a tennis racket and it’s OK to want to do something that’s outside of the box. I feel that when I say it, people listen".
There are better athletes than Mirza—Saina Nehwal, to start with—but this isn’t about competition, this is about sisterhood and fairness and having a voice. This is about confronting double standards, as she does, whether it’s people asking women athletes—but never men—about settling down and children and what they wear. It’s about people speaking of Martina Navratilova, 59 Grand Slam titles (18 singles, 31 doubles, 10 mixed) and rarely acknowledging her as one of the best-ever athletes but always qualifying it with gender. “(They always say) one of the best-ever women athletes," she says. It’s sexist, Mirza insists, and she’s not wrong.
Young Indian girls need all type of heroes, but they especially need young Indian women to look up to. Women who throw right hooks, women who know wrestling holds, women who rise to smash. And now here they are, a growing army of them named Mary and Sindhu and Sakshi and Dipa, who are outstripping the men and hurdling barriers and grabbing medals. Somewhere in Kerala, a greying, great lady called P.T. Usha must be smiling.
“That’s the reason," says Mirza, “why the women should get much more appreciation—because they have gone through a lot more of sacrifice than the men athletes have. I’m not saying they’ve worked harder. Of course not. But outside of the court the amount of problems they’ve had to face... As a boy you don’t have to face those issues, you don’t have to be questioned every single day as to why you’re choosing a sport over going to school.
“If someone says, ‘I want to be Virat Kohli,’ invariably the parents will be more than happy to say, ‘Let him become a Virat Kohli, I will support him.’ But if someone comes out and says, ‘I want to be a Sania Mirza or Mary Kom,’ invariably parents will say, ‘But how, you’re going to play in short skirts, you’re gonna get dark, you’re not going to get married’...that’s why as a girl we face a lot more issues."
A 15-minute chat eventually stretches to almost 40 minutes, and there’s not a subject she won’t riff on. Athletes often claim we don’t get them, that like a dancer or painter we have no feel for the inspiration, emotion, discipline and stress of their world. Even just the speed they play at is foreign. So I ask Mirza, is there something that she feels we don’t entirely understand? She thinks, she starts:
“People don’t understand what an athlete goes through during a match, the emotions...you go through happiness, you go through sadness, you go through anger, but you also have to contain yourself, calm yourself down and then try to win the next point."
It’s endless, it’s exhausting, and when they reach for their towels perhaps it’s not just sweat they’re wiping off but the accumulating emotion. “We’re talking to ourselves all the time," she grins, and who does that, she wonders. Not in any other profession, not in full planetary view, not the sane. People might think to themselves, yet athletes have “full-on conversations" with themselves.
“I always say that what you see on the tennis court is a person’s true personality. We are not acting."
You just want to win?
“We just want to win."
It’s an acute competitive ache that we don’t completely comprehend, which is why now and then people in her box will ask her dad, “Why do they cry after a match?"
It’s not the only thing some people don’t get. “I think people don’t get the effort that goes into reaching here." Not just to her level, or where Angelique Kerber is in singles, but to the level a college player reaches in any sport. We don’t know, probably because most of us don’t watch practice, don’t see the labour, don’t taste the pain, don’t watch the making of greatness, the repetitions on court, the exercises in the gym, the early bedtimes. As she says: “Till today, I have people in my own, extended family who say, ‘achcha, khelne ja rahi ho’." As if she’s going to “play outside with the kids" and please come home before it’s dark.
I wonder if she, 40 doubles titles and almost $6.5 million (around Rs44 crore) in prize money, ever thinks of what she might have been in singles—which is tennis’ primary test—if she was fitter and less injury-prone, but maybe Mirza has been able to march forward as an athlete by not looking back. Evening is falling, and she rises to leave on a body that has a left-foot bone bruise, a bulging bone on her right knee, a bit of neck pain and the residue of a viral fever. The usual athlete stuff.
October has gone and November is winding down and her Twitter feed confirms that she’s back at work. Polishing her fitness, oiling forehands, pushing her body to try and keep up with her ambition, and trying to do what she enjoys most.
Making dents. In carpets and history.
Rohit Brijnath is a columnist with The Straits Times, Singapore.