Sania Mirza is synonymous with Indian tennis. With six Grand Slams and 47 titles to her name, she’s India’s most successful female tennis player.
Her name is also usually followed by the descriptor “first Indian woman to…” Sania Mirza became the first Indian woman to win a Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tournament in 2005, in her hometown Hyderabad. She’s also the first Indian woman to win a Grand Slam doubles title, the first Indian woman to be seeded #27 in singles, and the first Indian woman to be seeded #1 in singles or doubles.
And earlier this week, she became the first Indian woman tennis superstar to announce her retirement. According to her statement, the 2022 season will be her last.
Congratulations poured in for the tennis star on her “remarkable career”, with many calling her the “queen” and an “inspiration”. Celebrities such as Rakshanda Khan, former Indian cricket captain Mohammed Azharuddin, Bollywood actors Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor, Asian Games gold medalist Somdev Devvarman and Congress leader Shashi Tharoor were among the many who lauded her decision and wished her a successful 2022 season.
Over her 21-year-long career, Sania Mirza has endured far more than the average athlete, from fatwas to being called “Pakistan’s daughter-in-law.” But with her trademark nose piercing, her witty t-shirts, and her sassy comebacks, Mirza has made an indelible impression on a generation of Indians — whether they followed tennis or not.
She’s the first of her kind, and hopefully not the last. Her decision to retire was met with an outpouring of love on social media as well, with many congratulating her at the end of an era. This is why Sania Mirza is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
No stranger to controversy
Indians saw her as a woman first, a Muslim second, and an athlete third. As a result, every aspect of her performance — from the clothes she wore on the court to what she does when she’s relaxing — has been scrutinised.
At the height of “Sania mania” in 2005, the Sunni Ulema Board issued a fatwa against her because of her “indecent dressing,” calling her tennis skirt and shirts “unIslamic” and “corrupting.” That year, at Wimbledon, she wore a t-shirt that proclaimed “well-behaved women rarely make history.”
A few years later, at the age of 21, she was accused of disrespecting the Indian flag: a case was filed against her because she was pictured with her feet up, toes pointed at the tricolour. In 2005, Mirza reportedly didn’t take the court at an international tournament until the organisers hoisted the Indian flag the right way, having accidentally hoisted it upside down.
Her subsequent marriage to Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik in 2010 attracted unnecessary attention and speculation, bizarrely calling both their patriotism into question. The couple was forced to navigate rumours about them switching nationalities or sabotaging their chances in a match.
Twelve years later, the couple is still together, and often post pictures and videos on Instagram. Their three-year-old son, Izhaan Mirza-Malik, is an Instagram influencer in his own right with over one lakh followers. Mirza herself has nearly nine million followers on Instagram and more than nine million on Twitter — her trending reels and posts about travel and training offering a window into both her life and career. And what a career it was.
Against all odds
Sania Mirza shot to international attention at the age of 15 after she won her first title at the 2002 Asian Games. Three years later, in 2005, she lost to Serena Williams in the third round of the Australian Open. The image of an 18-year-old Mirza shaking hands with the legendary Williams, both women wearing yellow, earned its place in India’s sporting hall of fame.
— Sania Mirza (@MirzaSania) March 9, 2015
Women in sports don’t have the same access to the resources and funding available to men, which Mirza has pointed out. There are only two Indian women who were competing internationally before her: Nirupama Mankad and Nirupama Vaidyanathan. With very little support from the All India Tennis Association (AITA), Mirza’s success was charted by her family. Her father, Imran Mirza, is still her coach and mentor. Her early sponsor was GVK Industries, and she also received support from male tennis stalwart Mahesh Bhupathi.
She broke into the top 100 seeds in 2007, achieving her singles high rank of 27 in 2007. After a spate of injuries and five surgeries, Mirza transitioned to focusing on her doubles career. The last singles event she played was in 2012, by which time she had already had two Grand Slams under her belt: her mixed-doubles partnership with Mahesh Bhupathi won the 2009 Australian Open and 2012 French Open. She won another mixed doubles Grand Slam in 2014 with the US Open.
Mirza hit her stride in 2015 when she partnered with Martina Hingis, former world number one whom she had beaten in the past. The two became known as “Santina,” as well as one of the best doubles partnerships in the Open Era. Together, they won 14 titles, including three Grand Slam. The partnership ended in 2016, but Mirza continued to win titles before going on maternity leave in 2018.
In between playing internationally and navigating controversial media attention, Mirza and her father also started the Sania Mirza Tennis Academy in Hyderabad. She returned to playing internationally in 2020, winning one title.
End of one era, beginning of another
Sania Mirza is an icon for India’s female athletes. She’s also articulate, fashionable, and unafraid to showcase her personality — both on the court and off. She has grown up under intense media coverage, which often pokes fun at and questions her choices, whether it’s her husband, clothes, or lifestyle.
Despite this, Mirza has done exactly as she pleased, and with conviction. In 2016, during an interview to promote her autobiography, Rajdeep Sardesai asked her a sexist question: did she have plans to “settle down?”
“You sound disappointed that I’m not choosing motherhood over being number one in the world at this point of time,” she fired back.
When Mirza did choose motherhood in 2018, she chose it on her own terms. In 2020, she was back on the court — and won the first tournament she played in, the Hobart International.
Today, her retirement is on her own terms too. As an athlete, she is choosing not to force herself to continue performing when her body is wearing down. At the age of 35, after a trailblazing tennis career, she is choosing herself.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)