By Vatsal Tolasaria – 8th September, 2018
Irrespective of whether one follows sports or not, they would be aware of the Sania Mirza phenomenon. She literally changed the sporting landscape of the country. She changed how young girls look up to sports as a career in this country. She instilled the belief in young girls, across all sports, that if you work hard, and dream big, nothing is impossible.
We have seen all this from the outside. But her life and career have not been as easy as it seems. It came with its share of troubles, both on and off court. And who better to tell us about it than Mr. Imran Mirza, her father, who’s been her pillar of support from day one, both on and off court.
We caught up with Imran Sir and tried to get an alternative perspective on the life and journey of “The Sania Mirza”.
Imran Sir working with Sania on court
Q) How did your introduction to Tennis happen? Did you also play the sport back in the day?
I played a little bit of Tennis, but we are more of a cricketing family, where everyone has played cricket at some level at some point in their lives. So the passion for sports was always there. I cannot imagine myself having a life without being involved in sports in some way. Tennis was not my first love, it was my second love, after Cricket, but I had played Tennis in my college days.
I also ran a sports magazine called “Sports Call” in Hyderabad after college. It was a local magazine restricted to South India. We printed black and white copies and had a circulation of about 6000 . I published it for a couple of years, but it was running at a loss. To support it, I started a printing press. The printing press survived for about 25-30 years, but the magazine had to stop.
I understood sports and I understood Tennis, as I had been following closely, analytically and by listening to experts while discussing matches involving the likes of Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl. So the understanding of the game started developing from there. There was a time when I needed to step in as a coach for Sania, and I was able to use that knowledge to maximise results. Probably, if Sania were a boy, she would have been into Cricket.
Imran Sir receiving the Rohinton Baria Best Batsman’s trophy during his schooldays
Imran Sir reading a 1983 edition of Sports Call
Q) Sania had to break a lot of gender and religion based stereotypes to take up Tennis and pursue it. And that wouldn’t have been possible without the support of her parents. How was your and Nasima Ma’am’s thinking so progressive at the time, given that the society was pretty backward in their mindset?
I don’t necessarily consider it progressive. I think it’s the passion for sports that made us respect anyone who played it. Sports was never a taboo for us, irrespective of whether a boy or a girl played it. Also, a lot of problems that we faced in the early part of Sania’s career were due to the kind of articles that were written in the press, rather than what actually happened. We were faced with a media who at that point of time was just starting to learn to deal with a female sporting icon. They had dealt with a Bollywood star or a glamorous Miss India, but they hadn’t ever dealt with a sports woman, who was achieving things by the day, who was able to speak her mind, and was also reasonably good looking. So I think a lot of problems were caused by the articles in the media.
For instance, there was a controversy about a Fatwa at that point in time. No cleric came out to give that statement. It’s when the media went to the cleric with unnecessary questions, that the cleric made a statement which wasn’t incorrect from a religious point of view. But there was no need to ask that question in the first place and then to blow it all up.
Q) While Sania was growing up, did you always believe that she was going to be a professional tennis player? If not, when did you realise that “Yeah, my daughter’s going to play pro tennis”?
No, not initially. I think everybody in the family played sports for the love of it. We always encouraged playing sports, whether it was Cricket, Tennis, or anything else. The first day she went to play Tennis, you could feel that she seemed to have a flair for it. Even though I didn’t go along with her, she went with her mother. I think she was six years old then. Ten days later, the coach called me up and told me “Sir, you have to come down and see how she hits the ball. She is amazing.” And I had seen enough sports to realize that a mere six year old cannot be a world beater at that stage!
In fact, after that, I didn’t even go to watch her play for the next six months. Basically, I was trying to make ends meet at that point and watching a six year old daughter playing tennis was not my priority. But when I finally did go to see her play, I could see that she had some special gift. Even then, it was difficult for me to imagine that a six or seven year old girl from India would win Wimbledon or something at that point in time. It was more like, if she improves, she might be able to play the U10 State Ranking Tournament. Then she started playing tournaments, delivering results, and we kept on encouraging her. I think it’s just that winning Wimbledon was a distant dream that we were scared to admit even to ourselves.
Q) Tennis turned Sania into a superstar. At such a young age, it obviously comes with its pros/cons. Do you sometimes wish your daughter would have taken another career and a less prominent life?
A lot of things were very difficult while we were doing it. But when you look back at the pros and cons, I don’t think we would exchange anything. We enjoyed every moment of it. We had our own share of struggles, several joyous moments, disappointments, winning/losing, the travel. The whole family became one to achieve a common goal. So that feeling of togetherness and excitement at achieving something no Indian girl had ever achieved was something I wouldn’t exchange for anything else.
The Mirza Family (From left – Sania, Mother Nasima, Sister Anam, Father Imran)
Q) What is the key factor today to deal with that popularity? What would your advice be to upcoming sports-stars?
I think Sania paid the price for being the pioneer in her field. Even the media has matured. So, whoever comes in now, I feel the media is experienced enough to deal with a female sports icon better. She was in a unique space where she was doing something that no one had done before, and the world was learning how to deal with it.
Q) You’ve been involved with her game for the better part of her career. She achieved a lot(#27 in singles). But what are some aspects in her game that she were lacking in that could have made her a Grand Slam winner(in singles)?
You know when she reached 31 in the world in 2005, people asked me then, “Sir, do you think she can win a Grand Slam? Can she be No.1 in the world?” And I told them “I really think that there are a few flaws in her game that would be very difficult to overcome. So I cannot see her getting into the Top 10. But I also see that she has it in her to be the No.1 in the doubles game”. So I saw it in 2005.
Coming back to the flaws in her singles game, her serve was weak. She had a technical flaw in her serve which was very difficult to correct after she had crossed a certain age. Her footwork was not nimble enough as some of her European counterparts. That was genetic I guess. Also, she had not worked in the same way in which some of her rivals had done, where a player needs to start working on her fitness when she is 6 or 7 rather than at 17 or 18 as was the case with her. Her backhand was also not a major strength. She had a forehand that could compete against the best in the world but the injuries that she had also held her back. These were the problems which I think restricted her from getting to the very top in singles.
Q) What would you have done differently(in training) for preventing her injuries? For example – Playing less tournaments, more pre-hab, more strength training etc.
The thing is you need professional help for that. It’s not you or I who can guide her with physical training that is required to be a champion in tennis. It is difficult to afford in the early years. We were really struggling financially, and Tennis is one sport where you have to bear all the costs. It’s not like other games like say, Badminton, where all the expenses are borne by the association. In Tennis, the money has to be raised on your own, the sponsors have to be found by yourself, the prize money that you win has to go back into covering your expenses, your coaches, your travel, everything. So it’s a very difficult sport to come up in, in general.
And at that age, when you are six or seven, grappling with all these kinds of problems it is very difficult to think about hiring a trainer that would cost you anything around $1,500/week. So even if we had known about it, I don’t think we would have been able to overcome that problem of being able to afford a professional trainer.
If we had better coaches, we would have been able to rectify the flaw in her serve early on. I could see that something was wrong. But I couldn’t really pinpoint what it was. And it was not something that the Indian coaches were able to identify. It was only pointed by some foreign coaches after she had won the Junior Wimbledon title at 16. But by that time, it was too late to make changes. The technical problem she had was very difficult to overcome after 14, even though it was a very simple adjustment, and she would have been able to do it if it was pointed out earlier.
So these are things that I have learnt and used over the years in my coaching. I had the opportunity to work with Bob Brett, who’s coached Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic, then I’ve worked with Tony Roche, who was working with Roger Federer at that point in time and also with Sven Groeneveld, who was Maria Sharapova’s coach. So all these things helped me to coach Sania later on, on tour.
Q) Are the training methods in India different now than when she was training? Do you see an improvement?
There is a marginal improvement. But the problem is you have to stay abreast with the latest changes. The game has changed, the surface has changed, the kind of balls that are being used have changed. So the training methods here have to change with the changing trends. And for that, you need to be travelling on the circuit to understand what’s going on. You can’t be sitting out here and producing a world champion.
Imran Sir playing a fun exhibition match with legendary Vijay Amritraj as partner
Q) Talking about sponsors, what has the role of GVK been in her career? How and when did that association begin?
I think when she was around 220-230 in the world in ITF Juniors, that is when people started talking about how talented she was. GVK stepped in when she was around 15.
Q) All of us have seen the rosy side of Sania’s golden period(2005-2008) in singles. But I remember her talking about having broken nails, anxiety issues etc before matches. Can you give us some insight into how tough that phase was for her, mentally and physically?
I think she was not a person who would be overly worried about going on court. She was one who loved to perform on the big stage, in front of a big crowd. The anxieties happened due to the problems created by the media, and the unnecessary controversies that were created. She was also struggling with injuries from ever since she was sixteen I think. The body was just not strong enough to bear the rigours of professional Tennis. She was trying to achieve things at the professional level, without having the training methods she should have been exposed to, from the time she was six, seven, or eight.
Q) Which of Sania’s victories do you cherish the most? Can you talk about a few of them?
The greatest victory I think was her 2015 Wimbledon Finals win. I think it was one of the most amazing matches I have watched. It was a very tight match where Sania and Martina(Hingis) were behind all through the match. In fact, they were 2-5 down in the third set, and then came back to win it. Federer commented on that match saying that he would not miss a minute of that match. It was all the more special, because she came back fighting from behind to win, at Wimbledon, something which she had never done. It quite simply is the greatest place to win any match.
Happy faces when Sania became world no. 1 in Charlestown on 12th April 2015
Q) There were also little rivalries with players like Chakvetadze, Tanasugarn, Hingis, etc on the singles court. What would you have to say about them? Which is the most fascinating one?
Hingis and Sania ended their Head To Head at 2-2. All three of them were very good friends of Sania. In fact, Martina(Hingis) and Anna(Chakvetadze) were very dear friends. Chakvetadze has gone into politics after retirement, I think.
Yeah, Chakvetadze had a different kind of a forehand and she would chip the ball, and you couldn’t really see it. In one year, I think Sania lost five or six matches to her, and that was the year she reached 27 in the world. So if Chakvetadze wasn’t around, I think Sania would have cracked Top 15 probably(laughs).
With Martina, I think it was different. Sania lost the first two matches she played against her in Dubai and Kolkata. In Kolkata actually, it was the semi-finals of the Sunfeast Open, and Sania was in top form. But in that particular match, I think Hingis played amazingly well, and thrashed Sania 6-1, 6-0. And I remember, the media talking about it the next day, saying that Martina was a class apart, and there was no way that an Indian could match her. But as a critic, I understood that it was a day where Martina could do no wrong, and it would be impossible for her to repeat that sort of a performance again. Just four or five days later, in another tournament in Korea, Sania found herself playing against Hingis again in the Round of 16. I was not there, but I remember talking to her before the match, discussing strategies, discussing what had happened in Kolkata, and how to change things up. And then she beat Hingis, just four days after the media had ruled out any possibility of her ever doing so. In fact, she beat Hingis 6-0 in the 2nd set in that match. And it was an amazing feeling for me to see her coming back and beating her 6-0, after being thrashed 6-0 & 6-1 just four days back. Then she beat her again in Los Angeles in 2007, to even up their rivalry at 2-2 in singles.
Q) Talking about Martina, Sania has had a very fruitful doubles partnership with her. Tell us a bit about that entire association and what made their games complement each other so well?
I think Sania has one of the best forehands in Women’s Tennis and Martina has an equally good backhand, and she is brilliant at the net. So what Sania brings to the table, Martina can complement it really well. For instance, when Sania hits a big forehand, Martina would finish off the easy volley and rarely miss. Even when she would get a tough volley, she would still finish it off. Similarly, she had a great backhand too. So the opponents didn’t really know where to hit the ball. It was a great combination. But everything has a shelf life, and there did come a time where people figured their game out, and things didn’t work out. But I think, for about one and a half years, they were absolutely unbeatable. Probably, in my opinion, they were one of the greatest doubles teams in Women’s Tennis ever!
Imran Sir with Sania at the White House
Q) Sania was #27 in singles and #1 in doubles. I know it’s a tough question, but what makes you more content from within? #1 in doubles or #27 in singles.
I think both of them are humongous achievements. Obviously, she would have loved to be No.1 in singles, but getting to 27 is no mean feat either. Considering the second best Indian was Nirupama Vaidyanathan at rank 134. That gives you an idea of the difficulties involved in even getting to the Top 100. And to have made it to 27 in the world, I think was phenomenal and it will be a record that will be very difficult for any other Indian to beat in the near future.
Also, getting to No.1 in the world in doubles is huge. In fact, getting to No.1 in the world in any field – even while playing Marbles, is a great achievement! Tennis is a truly global sport, which around 220 countries play seriously. So to be No.1 in singles or doubles, is a huge, huge achievement.
Q) How tough is it manage dual roles at the same time – of that a parent and a coach?
It takes a lot of maturity. You have to remember that you are a parent first, and then a coach. Because there would be other people who can coach, but no one can take over your role as a parent. So you have to keep that in mind. And it’s not easy at times. There are many times, when you would want to say something as a coach, but as a parent, you would not want to say that. So you have to show enough maturity to hold back.
Q) You have played a huge role in the career of Prarthana. She herself has mentioned that your advice and guidance has been really useful to her and has helped her rise up in the WTA Doubles Rankings. Tell us a bit about the relationship you share with her.
We haven’t had any other women’s player apart from Sania to have cracked the Top 100 in the WTA Rankings in singles or doubles. And I think it is quite a bitter pill for us to swallow. In 130 or 140 years of Tennis, we have been able to produce just one Top 100 player. So my goal was to change that. We got her to 125 in the world, and then she had problems. So I hope she can get her there one day. That is something very dear to me.
And Prarthana is someone who is always willing to learn, is always respectful, is always ready to put in the hard hours. And I find that very admirable. And I took it up as a challenge. She was around 20 years old and probably ranked outside Top 500 when she joined me. I realised that it was probably too late for us to change her game in singles. So we decided to focus on doubles, and I thought she could earn a living out of the sport. I think it’s worked out for her, since Sania is not playing, she is No.1 in India in doubles (laughs).
Q) Tell us a bit about the inception of the Sania Mirza Tennis Academy(SMTA). How’s that project coming along?
It’s going really well. It’s been five years now, time really flies. I think when Sania started playing, there were just two hard courts in entire Hyderabad. We had to go to a friend’s place to play on a private hard court. He kept it under lock and key. So we had to go there, wait for a couple of hours for him to wake up, give us the key, and then we could play. It was very difficult to find hard courts to play on in Hyderabad in those days. So we always had it at the back of our minds to change this.
We set up an academy, that stands at par with any other international academy in the world. We had lots of international players compliment us for the facilty. In four acres of land, we have 12 courts – 9 hard courts and 3 clay courts, a swimming pool, a gym. We have virtually everything all under one roof. It is very dear to us, and we are giving an opportunity to the next generation of Tennis players to blossom into world class players. We bring foreign coaches and trainers for camps lasting three to four weeks, so that the kids can at least imbibe what needs to be learnt and done, without having to travel to Australia or Europe.
Imran Sir with Sania at the SMTA in Hyderabad
Q) You co-wrote Sania’s autobiography “Ace Against Odds”. How was it like to don a different hat?
Writing has been very dear to me. In fact, I also edited a sports magazine. So I love to write. Having a first hand experience of everything, I had a different view. Of course, Sania gave me most of the inputs, but I have seen what she has gone through while coming up and it was a pleasure to put it down on paper for posterity.
Q) Lastly, what do you think of the upcoming young crop of tennis players from our country? Sumit, Karman, Ankita, Ramkumar, etc?
I have a lot of hopes on Karman. She has a lot of potential to probably get into Top 50. She has what it takes and is 6’1” to start with, which is rare for an Indian girl. She has a big serve, good groundstrokes, she has the sponsors, she has the best coaches to work with. She is currently working with Mouratoglou (Serena’s coach). I really think she has it in her to make the Top 50 and I would be disappointed if she doesn’t make it.
Ankita Raina has done well within her limitations. She also recently won a Bronze at the Asian Games. People don’t realise how tough it is to make it to the Top 100, Top 50, or Top 25 in this sport where so many countries play. Ankita has done so well for herself, but still she finds herself hanging around in the Top 200. And she is the No.1 player in the country right now. In any other sport, nobody would have even cared to look at the World No.200. But here at 200 in a truly global sport that is followed the world over, she has done marvellously well to get there.
Ramkumar I think has a very good temperament. I watched him play at Washington DC last year. If he can just get a little more consistent, it would be great. There are times when he is capable of beating the top notch players, and then follows that up with a disappointing week. If he can just get a little more consistent, he is also Top 50 material in my book.
Rapid Fire –
|Favorite City||San Diego, Kuala Lumpur, Prague|
|A place you haven’t been to but would love to visit||South America. One year we were planning to go to Columbia and there were riots there. So we decided to stay away(laughs)|
|Favorite Tournament||Wimbledon, by far|
|Favorite partner from Sania’s career(female)||Martina Hingis – Specially because I doubled up as coach for the team. Even after achieving so much in the game, yet she was always willing to learn. If you gave her an idea, she would debate with you. If I won the debate, only then she would implement it.|
|Favorite partner from Sania’s career(male)||Mahesh Bhupathi – It was unfortunate that by the time Sania fully developed as a doubles player, Mahesh was past his peak. Yet, to have won two Grand Slams was amazing. It remains one of my biggest regrets that they were not able to play the Olympics together in London in 2012, despite winning the French Open together just a month back|
|Things you like to do in your free time||Watch TV, spend time with friends and family|
|Any interesting travel experience||Within our family, there have been times when, including our son-in-law, the five of us have been travelling in different directions of the world for our respective works. I think that’s pretty crazy|
|Favorite aspect of Sania’s game||Forehand. She was gifted. So many coaches and players came up to me and said that we are probably not going to see anything like her forehand after she has gone away from tennis.|