The forehand flew just long. “Out," called Karteek Reddy, a rising young tennis player, rallying with Sania Mirza on a recent Friday afternoon in Hyderabad. On the other side of the net, Mirza, in a blue T-shirt, dark blue tights and bun spilling out of her black cap, squinted and defied the call, hands on hips. “You mean out of reach, baby!" she said, laughing.

Mirza’s forehand has indeed been a formidable stroke, out of reach of her opponents, from the beginning of her career, a weapon that has propelled her to six Grand Slam doubles titles, a clutch of Asian Games gold medals, and the No.1 doubles ranking in 2015. But it has not been in competitive action since she took an injury break in October 2017, and sat out 2018 and 2019 after having a child with her cricketer husband, Shoaib Malik.

That afternoon she was practising with Reddy and old friends and Davis Cup players Vishnu Vardhan and Saketh Myneni ahead of her return to doubles competition at the Hobart International in Australia later this month. Between games she got a call from home, just next to the Film Nagar Club court where we were, saying her 14-month-old son, Izhaan, had thrown up. She attended to the situation and returned to play.

“It’s going to happen," she says later, of the interruption. “These are things you don’t anticipate. I would like to think I am a pretty chilled mom, I don’t panic."

She certainly wasn’t panicking much that session, notwithstanding the calls, the calf strain or the overhead sun, winning three of the four 11-point games she played.

Sania Mirza with Martina Hingis after winning the Wimbledon Ladies doubles in 2015
Sania Mirza with Martina Hingis after winning the Wimbledon Ladies doubles in 2015 (Photo: Getty Images)

But returning to full fitness has not been easy after a caesarean section in October 2018. There were the 26 extra kilograms she wanted to shed, to begin with. “I didn’t want to! I had to!" she says, laughing in her home office, cluttered with books, bric-a-brac and wall signs with “be brave" and “get shit done". “I wasn’t feeling healthy. Till the day I had him, I ate everything I saw. (After that), there was no excuse to eat everything. For me, being healthy is an integral part of who I am. I just wanted to be fit again."

She started with a light workout walk three weeks after the delivery. For five-six months she just worked on personal fitness, documenting some of that journey on social media, without any special focus on a comeback.

“I had so much else going on. I wasn’t really thinking about it. Maybe at some point I was like, if it does happen, great, if it doesn’t, I am not going to beat myself up over it, I have had a great career," says the winner of two year-ending WTA Finals. “The best part about my comeback is it’s on my own terms. I want to come back to play, there is no gun to my head saying you haven’t achieved this so you need to do that."

Around mid-2019, she picked up her racket again, just for fun. Her muscle memory returned quickly, and the old pleasures of racket on ball revived.

“It was not like one day, but a process going on in my head," she says. “It took me time to settle as a mother. There are many changes in my life that happened overnight, and you have to adapt. Mother’s love comes instinctively but other things take an effort."

Scheduling, managing time and childcare are one thing. Returning to a competitive level requires another kind of effort. “When I look at myself in the mirror, I know what has changed. A lot of things in your body change. For example, I don’t recover as well as I used to, that could be because of the baby, or that could be because of ageing."

On court, she didn’t look like she was having much trouble, melding crafty angled forehands and down-the-line winners and eliciting errors from her opponents at the net. The banter flew easily in the group: threats of push-ups for the loser, ribbing over botched shots and tense game points.

Mirza is still the only Indian woman to have broken into the top 30 in singles, which she did in 2007, at 20. Since then, success for a new generation of Indian tennis stars has been fitful and elusive. “We are in 2020 and we are still talking about ‘who after you’. I have been answering this question for the last 15 years," she says. “We don’t have a system in place to produce champions year after year."

Mirza turned pro in 2003, but never had a fixed retirement age in mind. What she did have, though, was the certainty that she wanted a child before the age of 30. She was 32 when she delivered. She will turn 34 this year.

This is no longer unusual at the highest levels of tennis, where longevity has burgeoned. The Willams sisters, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, among others, are competing and winning deep into their 30s. It’s a testament to how the sport too has changed. “The game has evolved a lot and experience plays a bigger part, so the inexperienced are unable to crack it," says Mirza. “About 15 years ago or before it was different. People were breaking in at the age of 14, 15, 16. They were winning Slams. That can’t happen today (because of age-related rules). And maybe fatigue was more; if you start at 14, you will tire by the late 20s."

When she returns to the WTA tour, she will join a growing tribe of tennis-playing mothers who have returned to the game after childbirth, including Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams. “I get messages from so many women. They say your video or picture inspired me. If I am able to inspire even one woman, whether it’s a fitness dream or going back to work, or anything...," she says. “I want to show the world, you can follow your dreams after having a child, and it’s okay, it doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad mother. When a father can do the same thing, why is the mother expected to stop?"

This is vintage Mirza; sharp, outspoken, quick to call out double standards. At an airport recently, for instance, someone asked where her child was. “You think my husband gets that question when he is playing in the Caribbean?" she asks. She laughs. “I don’t think so."

This is very much of a piece with the casual sexism Mirza has faced since she was a teen; whether in her choice of clothes, husband or, right after childbirth, her weight. The comments kept coming. “I was like, how sad a world is it that a woman is (judged) solely on the way she looks, even though she has just given birth or is about to," she says. “I was nine months pregnant and they were like, you are so fat! What sense does that make?"

Very little. But trolls won’t be slayed by sensible counter-arguments, so Mirza deals with them mostly by ignoring them (“They are just losers, how are you going to react to losers, it’s tough!") or rolling her eyes at the same jaded questions (“Do you support India or Pakistan? I am, like, guys, get over it!").

She hasn’t charted out every detail for the 2020 season, though she can qualify for the Olympics in July through the system of protected rankings for returning mothers. There are no specific goals for 2020, apart from being healthy and competing through the whole season.

“(Earlier), I had pressure I want to achieve this or this. Once you have a kid, everything else seems so small in front of it. I know it’s a cliche. A lot of things fall into perspective."

Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist.

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