Not many tennis players have enjoyed success after motherhood. And of all the mothers who have returned to tennis, Sania Mirza enjoyed the most immediate success. Last January in Hobart, she won her first tournament back, partnering Nadiia Kichenok of Ukraine.
The 33-year-old champion player was busy meeting her WTA commitments during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and returned home with her one-year-old son Izhaan in Hyderabad just before the lockdown was imposed in India.
One of India’s most popular sporting icons, she is a iving proof that young mothers need not abandon their career.
“One of the reasons to make this comeback was to tell women that you can follow your dreams,” Sania, who has won six Grand Slam doubles titles including the 2015 Wimbledon women’s doubles, says.
In an exclusive interview with Malayala Manorama, she gets candid about becoming a mother, returning to tennis court, dreams of competing in another Olympics and much more.
Your return to competitive tennis after two years of maternity break was incredible. How did you manage that?
I had gained too much weight during pregnancy. It took a lot of stubbornness and determination for me to lose 26 kilos in four months. My son Izhaan was my biggest motivation. I really want my son to watch me play at a big tournament and win. And with Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters making a comeback after having a baby, there was enough inspiration around. My first tournament after giving birth to Izhaan was the Hobart International and I went there thinking that it would be great if I manage to win at least a single match. But I went on winning that tournament with the help of my Ukrainian partner Nadiia Kichenok. It was incredible and I realised that all my hard work was worth it. I could not have hoped for a better comeback, and I’m extremely happy that my journey could inspire mothers around the world.
Your life has changed a lot over the past two years. As a parent, is it tough to balance your needs and your child’s?
Motherhood changes you deeply in so many ways. But I have never compromised on my fitness schedule. I still spend the same amount of time on training. I decided to return to court only after I convinced myself that I would be able to find that balance. My mother is most supportive and I have no doubt that without a good support system, I could not have made a comeback. My younger sister Anam too played a huge part in giving me as much help as possible.
You and Shoaib Malik were stranded across the borders amidst the COVID-19 induced lockdown. How tough was it for Izhaan to cope with his father's absence?
It has been five months since we met each other. It is very difficult to deal with, but it is also important to stay positive during testing times. I take solace from the fact that both of us are safe in our homes. Shoib has been granted permission to meet us before he heads for England with the Pakistan team. I’m looking forward to a family reunion in Dubai. We have not been able to travel due to suspension of international commercial passenger flights. Izhaan too is waiting to see his father.
How are you dealing with the lockdown?
It was a real challenge to maintain fitness. I have created a home training system to do workouts and practice.
Many major tennis tournaments have been cancelled due to the pandemic. Do you think your career will get affected?
After staying away from the game for over two years, I could make a comeback and even win a title. But the situation is tough now. I’m worried that I might experience a slump in form if I do not take part in competitive tennis. I know the fear is unreasonable because every player is going through the same situation. I hope tournaments will restart in a month or two.
At the last Olympics, you reached the semifinals of the mixed doubles event partnering Rohan Bopanna. If you make it to the Tokyo Olympics it will be your fourth appearance at the quadrennial event. What are your expectations?
I’m highly motivated and I would be very proud of myself if I’m able to make it to Tokyo. I think the postponement is a blessing in disguise because players will get an extra year to prepare and hone their skills. Also, we will have the opportunity to take part in many tournaments leading up to the Olympics. Right now my topmost priority is to stay healthy and fit. I will continue to prepare myself to resume tennis. I still think I have tennis left in me.
Has the gender pay gap improved in tennis despite equal Grand Slam tournament prizes?
Equal pay is important for closing the gender gap. Grand Slam events have started to offer equal prize money, but that's not the case across other Women's Tennis Association (WTA) competitions. Even it took decades of fight by so many brave individuals to force introduction of equal pay at major tournaments. However, I believe as a society we are making substantial strides toward gender parity. Not only equal pay, but equal ease of access to resources and opportunities regardless of gender should also be ensured.
Many top players have backed having a joint ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) and WTA Tour by merging men's and women's governing bodies. What are your thoughts?
I think it is a great idea. I don’t know why the two tours have remained independent all these years. I’m sure that the merger of the two associations would be in the best interests of the sport as a whole. It is good to see debates and discussions over having a united body.
You are India’s best-ever female tennis player. Looking back, how do you feel?
It was an amazing journey which feels like a dream. If somebody had told me when I started playing tennis that I would reach this far in my career, I would have laughed it off. I just wanted to do well and by God's grace I could achieve so many things in my life.