“If there was something I could get back, it would probably be to win that Rio Olympics” – Sania Mirza

It was curtains down for Sania Mirza’s incredible career spanning 20 years as she bowed out in the opening round. A trailblazer of Indian sports, she leaves behind a legacy that is tough to match for the generations to come. Here is a transcript of the press conference from her farewell match.

Credits: Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

Feature Photo Credits : Jimmie 48

Q. I am tempted to ask you, last year when you announced your retirement, you wanted to defer your decision because of injuries. Do we see that happen again?

SANIA MIRZA: No. No, no, it’s not. The only reason that I continued to play, because I got hurt right in the middle of the year last year. For me it’s not acceptable – it’s just the person I am – to stop because of something. I want to stop or I want to play because I want to play.

Yeah, it’s time for different things. My priorities are different now. I’m just really grateful for everything that I’ve been able to achieve and been able to do in my last 20 years.

It’s been a long career. Yeah, I’m looking forward to the next phase of my life.

Q. Don’t you feel something in your stomach telling you that this is the last time you’re going to be doing that?

SANIA MIRZA: Yeah, I already did. I’ve been feeling that all week. I guess it’s still sinking in a little bit. I’m sure I’ll have a couple of cries before tomorrow morning.

But I think the good part about taking a decision on your own and doing it on your own terms is you’re very happy with what you’re doing. It is very important to believe.

Yeah, I feel very grateful and satisfied for everything that I’ve been able to do.

Q. You’ve left an incredible legacy behind. All the girls we’ve interviewed over the past few days have all talked about you, how disappointed they are that you’re choosing to retire when you’re playing good tennis. Yesterday Victoria Azarenka said she was disappointed you’re leaving the game.

SANIA MIRZA: Yeah, I’m really grateful I have that much respect. I think life’s about new challenges, moving on. I’ve been doing this, like I said, since 2003 professionally.

For me, I just don’t have that drive any more to be playing at this level. The stuff that goes behind the scenes… If there was some way I could just come out and compete without having to put the work in, I would take it, but that’s just not possible (smiling).

For me, the amount of work that goes into it, to take care of my body, the physical part of it, the mental, emotional part of it is just something that I don’t have that drive. Like, I really have to push myself to do it. I think if you love something so much, you shouldn’t have to push yourself that much.

Having said that, it’s not like I’m retiring at 25 years old. I’m 36. I’ve had a full tennis life. I’ve been able to achieve many of my goals and more.

I feel, like I said, a lot of gratitude today. To be able to do this on my own terms, to be able to do it when I’m playing well is great. I’ll still be around tennis. It’s just not competing.

Q. You’re very connected to the younger generation, trying to inspire others. Where do you think the next Sania Mirza is going to come from? Do you see someone coming up who can carry the torch?

SANIA MIRZA: I honestly don’t have an answer to that question unfortunately. I’ve not had that answer for the last 20 years. I hope that I don’t have to come up empty about that.

Every time that we see a glimmer of hope, we see either they go to college, and after college they never sort of come back to competing, or they’re just not able to make that next jump.

If you’re talking about someone trying to achieve, not just me as a benchmark, but more than what I have, I honestly feel that it will probably be someone who’s maybe five or six years old today.

It’s difficult for me to say that the generation that is immediately, the girls that I see, are going to suddenly break into the top 30 in the world in singles or be No. 1 in doubles. It’s unfortunate that I have to say this, but that is the truth. I’ve always said the truth.

Like, I do see people picking up more tennis racquets. I do see younger girls. I see parents come up to me and say, We’ve named her Sania, we want her to play tennis. All that stuff is great.

To see someone who is going to dominate at the highest level, I don’t know if I see that in the immediate five-, 10-year future. That’s the honest truth.

Q. You’ve taken on a role as a mentor for women in cricket. What do you hope to achieve from that role?

SANIA MIRZA: So when I decided to stop playing tennis, everybody kept asking me, What next? For me, ‘next’ meant trying to help the next generation of younger girls especially believe that they can be champions.

When this opportunity came to us – to me – I said, I’ve obviously been around cricket a lot in my life by default. But I really don’t understand it.

The whole concept of me being there has nothing to do with cricket. It actually has to do with the mental aspect of things with these younger girls. They’ve never been in positions where they’ve had crores, so much money, millions riding on them. Many of them haven’t been on TV, haven’t done ads, shoots. It’s so easy to get distracted from that stuff. It’s also very easy to tense up and feel the pressure because there’s so much expectation of you.

I’ve obviously had that for the last 20 years of my life. So I feel that at least in that mental aspect I’ll be able to share my experiences in just having to make them feel more comfortable with that kind of transition that they need to make. It’s a huge deal for a lot of people to be playing for teams that have put so much money in it. There’s a lot of expectation that comes off it.

Together it’s also really great because it gets me to do something that I want to do. It gets me to do something where I’m able to share my experience in trying to make women’s sport better and more accepted, more acknowledged for the future in the subcontinent.

Q. What are you feeling just now, just off the court?

SANIA MIRZA: I’m actually not feeling anything right now. Actually, I was really emotional yesterday. I cried on my way to the site when I was coming for the match. I wasn’t crying because I was sad. It’s a way of me emoting. Just overwhelming I guess. Then we got canceled. I was like, Well, that’s a waste (laughter).

Then, yeah, so right now I feel like I’m so lucky to have him (referring to her son sitting on her lap) and look forward to the normal things of life as well. I know they might sound really exciting to me today, but they probably won’t be as exciting to wake up and do school runs for the next 15 years (smiling).

Like I said, I don’t feel anything. I feel pretty numb, to be very honest, right now. Like I said, I think it’s going to hit me in a couple hours.

Q. Is there any missed opportunity that hurts you now?

SANIA MIRZA: Yeah, I mean, I think if there was something I could get back, it would probably be that Rio Olympics, to win that medal. I feel that’s probably the only thing. It was one of my biggest dreams to win a medal for India, having been at the Olympics four times, which was huge for me. We came so close to win that medal.

If there was something that I could be like, Can I get another shot at it, it would probably be that.

Q. As a fellow Indian and a woman, what message do I carry home for all the little girls looking up to you, including myself? What would you like to tell them?

SANIA MIRZA: As little girls, especially young girls who choose to do something that’s outside of the box in our part of the world, we are often told we cannot do something rather than we can. It was no different for me. It’s no different for a lot of young girls who choose to do things that are not really what society expects them to do as a young woman.

I just want to tell them that you have to back yourself and believe in yourself. If you are not your biggest cheerleader, nobody else is ever going to believe in you. No matter how many odds you face, how many odds are against you, if nobody’s even ever done it before, whatever path you choose, believe that you can do it.

I think it’s very, very important to have that belief in yourself.

Q. It’s 50 years of WTA tennis. You’ve given so much to the sport.

SANIA MIRZA: In 20 years (laughter).

Q. What did you get from being able to compete in the biggest professional women’s sport in the world?

SANIA MIRZA: Everything. I mean, I think tennis has really made me who I am. It’s not just in terms of what it made me on the outside but also what it made me on the inside, the person I am. It’s taught me so much.

It also I think in a larger scale made people believe that you can in a sport like tennis earn a living and be very successful, earn a name, and do what you love. I think maybe that belief was missing about 15, 20 years ago.

But today I think from India especially we have some of our biggest superstars outside of cricket are women, whether it’s in badminton, boxing or wrestling. It’s the women that have brought more medals in the last couple of Olympics than the men have. It’s not about hating on men. It has to do with the fact that they believe that they can do it.

I think that’s what tennis brought to me in the last 20 years that I’ve given to it. It’s also given me back twofolds.

Q. You’ve not done yourself too bad in terms of prize money over the years. What would you choose between prize money and legacy?

SANIA MIRZA: Why am I choosing (smiling)? Exactly. I don’t think that I need to choose. I think we all get paid for what we deserve and how we play, how we perform. Everybody gets paid for that. This is our job.

It was my day job for the last 20 years, actually the last 30 years. Since I was six years old, this is what I’ve done. I was very lucky to be able to make a living out of it. There were so many people that were competing with me in the juniors that were never able to make that living.

So I don’t think I need to choose.

Q. I just want to know about your legacy. Are you happy with the legacy you’re leaving behind?

SANIA MIRZA: Most definitely. I think for me the legacy, like I’ve been saying, people have been asking me this over the last one week, what my legacy is. I don’t really think of myself as that. It’s weird to think of yourself thinking, I’m leaving this legacy. Pretty cocky to say that I think.

I think I feel that if I want people to remember me, obviously I want them to remember me for what I’ve achieved and the kind of paths that we had to take, which were unheard of 20 years ago, 30 years ago. I also want them to remember me as someone who tried to be as authentic as possible, be true to herself.

Being in the media was very difficult growing up. 16 years old was the first time I really faced a room full of people asking me questions. What is this? What am I supposed to say?

At 16 you’re just thinking about going to coffee shops, bunking school, meeting boys. Here I was talking about the world. I was like, Wow. It was difficult. It was difficult to grow up in the media.

I tried to stay as true as possible. That’s a legacy I want. I think we’re all put here for a bigger reason than just hitting tennis balls or winning tennis matches. We’re really chosen to be here where you’re able to make an impact, you’re able to make a difference in some way. You should make a difference.

If that means standing up for the right, standing up for the good, what you believe the world needs to get better at, then that’s what it is. I want that also to be part of my legacy.

Q. What you meant for Muslim women, how you portrayed a Muslim women abroad, there are very few. How do you see that landscape different now?

SANIA MIRZA: I think religion is something that comes very personally to all of us. Every time that I step on the court, I’m not really thinking, Oh, my God, I’m this Muslim woman that’s trying to do this. That’s not really what I’m trying to do because I don’t think that any Christian person or Hindu person is doing that. I don’t look at it like that.

What I do behind closed doors and what my faith is is very different. But I do feel by default it did make an impact where people were like, You can be a Muslim woman and you can still pursue sport and be really good at it.

I was very lucky to have parents who were so maybe ahead of their times, where they didn’t care what people said, what the society said about their young girl wanting to play Wimbledon one day.

Civil Engineer by profession|Tennis fan by heart|Introvert by nature

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