It was the early 2000s, a time when I seldom had access to the internet, and even if I did, as a 11 year old, I didn’t know how to navigate it. Newspapers and TV became my only source of information in the world of sport. At the time, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi were at the peak of their powers, but India was still looking for singles representation at grand slams. While Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi got quite a lot of visibility, news of Indian singles tennis was confined to the small corners of newspapers. And there appeared a name, almost every week without fail: Sania Mirza.
By 2004, Sania Mirza, then a 17-18 year old, was already dominating the tennis Futures Circuit. Yet, sadly, the coverage of her career was scant. In late 2004, one such small corner of newspapers was dedicated to Asian Championships, the winner of which would be awarded a Wild Card to the Australian Open. Sania Mirza, unsurprisingly breezed through her early rounds of the Asian Championships, and despite storming to the advanced rounds, the space dedicated to covering her progress did not increase. And she didn’t stop there; Sania Mirza made her way to the final. An Indian was a win away from playing singles at a grand slam, which was no mean feat, and yet a 300 word byline was deemed sufficient to cover it.
Unfortunately though, a fairy tale run it was not to be. Sania Mirza lost the final to Li Na and it seemed like she was out of reckoning from the Australian Open main draw. Another case of so near, yet so far, I thought.
January 2005. I had just come back from school and put on the news. “Sania Mirza becomes the second Indian woman to progress to the 2nd round of a Grand Slam”; I was elated. This was big! An Indian, an Indian woman, had made it to the 2nd round of a grand slam. The news was sprung upon me, as no newspaper until then had deemed it worth mentioning the fact that she had been awarded the main draw wild card thanks to Li Na’s automatic qualification. But this snub from the newspapers could not last long, Mirza’s victory was now, rightly so, being applauded loud and clear in both TV and print. Sania further proved that her victory was no fluke, as she made it to the 3rd round of the Australian Open, where she was to face the mighty Serena Williams. Sania Mirza had made Indian singles tennis and women’s sport the focal point of the nation. In a matter of 2 matches, India singles tennis went from being a 300 word byline to the literal headline in all of Indian media. The fact that she lost to Serena Williams did not matter. All everyone could talk about in school the next day was how Serena Williams fell to her knees on multiple occasions when Sania Mirza unleashed her booming forehands. Sania Mirza had arrived. And how!
Just after her return from Australia, Sania was greeted with fanfare in India. And within a couple of weeks, won the Hyderabad Open. An 18 year old girl, in a matter of a month, had lifted Indian tennis, Indian sports, and Indian spirits. Indians were no longer just incredibly skilful doubles players, but could play powerful strokes and match the baseline skills of singles players.
And Sania’s year only went upwards and onwards. Second round at Wimbledon followed a few months after her Hyderabad Open title. Then it got even better: 4th round at the US Open. She was one of the top 16 players in the tournament, a tournament where she defeated a future grand slam champion in Marion Bartoli. Remember, this was her maiden year on the women’s tennis tour. Remember, she was all of 18 at that time. At a time when Indian singles didn’t really exist at the grand slam level, at a time when there were only a few handful of female sporting icons in the country. A fresh face of only 18, it would not be an exaggeration to say, she was India’s most talked about sports star. Less than a year from those 300 word bylines.
As an 11 year old, I was too young to have known about Karnam Malleshwari’s feat at the Sydney Olympics or PT Usha’s overall brilliance. To me, and several other 90’s born kids, Sania Mirza was one of India’s first women’s sporting icons whose rise we had witnessed first hand. Not just girls,but boys too wanted to play like Sania Mirza; even pre-teen boys who until then would never be caught fawning over a woman in sport.
Within a few months, Sania Mirza was an icon. Not just that, she was also India’s first millennial icon. Tendulkar, Dravid, Anju Bobby George, Anand and Paes were all legendary players, but were not millennials themselves. MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli only emerged later. Sania Mirza was the first sporting star whose growth Indian millennials had witnessed.
A lot will be written about what Sania Mirza went on to achieve in her career. A 6 time grand slam champion, World Number 1, Asian Games Gold Medallist, Commonwealth Games Gold Medallist. The list is endless. Sania, walks off as a bona fide legend of the sport, of Indian sports. But yet to me, 2005 remains the year of Sania. A year in which she broke several grounds in her first year; a women’s sporting icon, a millennial icon, an Indian icon. A year in which she made women’s sport and Indian singles tennis “mainstream”. Thank you Sania, for the memories.