Melbourne: Sania Mirza has been a pioneer in Indian women’s sport for a decade-and-half. At a time when Indian women got little coverage and endorsements, Mirza changed things around.
Besides playing a key role in the growth of women’s tennis in the country, she also worked towards changing archaic societal mindsets. One of them being the return to professional sport for a mother after the birth of her son Izhaan.
Things have changed over the years with many women athletes becoming household names. 2016 Rio Olympics silver medallist and 2020 Tokyo Olympics bronze medallist PV Sindhu, for instance, was ranked 12th in the list of the World’s Highest Paid Female Athletes by Forbes.
The latest shot in the arm in the growth of women’s sport in India came with BCCI announcing five Women’s Premier League (WPL) franchises lapped up for a combined INR 4,669.99 crore.
“We’ve had so many male cricket stars from our side of the world. To have women stars as well is something, that’s the way forward really. I’m pleasantly surprised. We have some huge stars in women’s cricket now as well who are carrying that torch,” she said after moving into the Australian Open mixed doubles final, alongside Rohan Bopanna, on Wednesday.
Mirza, playing her last Grand Slam of a glittering career, added: “For me, I think we’ve spoken about this so much, about taking women’s sport forward, especially in our part of the world where we still don’t think sport is the most natural course of a career that they choose for young girls, especially parents.”
“It’s amazing maybe this kind of stuff helps parents also encourage their young girls to take sport as a career. It’s not just, ‘Oh, my God, what are you doing going and playing like boys’ sort of situation. You can actually say, ‘you’re playing like a girl.'”
Mirza will be gunning for a third doubles title at the Australian Open on Friday in her sixth final appearance. The 36-year-old made her first appearance at Melbourne Park in 2008 and called facing Serena Williams in 2005 as her most memorable moment.
“For me, even though I’ve had so much success here, I think I’m in my fifth or sixth final here overall, having won a couple of times, for me the most special memory remains playing against Serena here when I was 18 years old, even though I lost that match, got blown off the court,” she said of the 2005 contest where she lost 1-6, 4-6 to the eventual champion Williams.
“Honestly, that was (when) my belief was installed there that this is where I belong and this is where I want to be. Even though Serena won the tournament that year, for me, it made me believe that as a young Indian girl, the dream that I had to play in the slams, try and win them, was something that happened that year for me in ’05.
“Even though I’ve been able to win so many more matches after that, have some great matches, win slams, that memory… I’m getting goosebumps when I talk about it. It was an incredible memory for me. That’s something that was probably the most special, even though I lost,” she added.
‘Telecast of matches inspires people’
Bopanna, who first partnered with Mirza at the Nationals when she was all of 14, said it is important to keep the flag flying and ensure the broadcast of Indian players irrespective of the format.
This is the first time since 2017 that there are no Indian singles players – male or female – in the draw of a major. Bopanna, however, urged that this run could inspire someone in the country to pick up the racket.
“I think everybody keeps always asking us why there are no singles players, there’s only doubles players. I look at it that at least we have somebody still flying the flag in this tournament. That’s the most important part,” said the 42-year-old Bopanna.
“I think every time a match of any one of us playing is telecasted in India, that’s the only way to inspire somebody. Any sport I think if you’re watching and you see your countrymen participate in that sport, that is the true inspiration. Doesn’t matter whether it’s singles, doubles, mixed doubles, or anything. I think in any sport people come out and support us for so many years. It’s been a fantastic support.
“It’s amazing that we also get energy from that. Every time we are playing, I feel, somebody watching gets inspired. I know Sania has been doing this for such a long time. So many girls have picked up tennis thanks to Sania’s tremendous career.”
“Every time even that 1% if it increases, I think it’s a big win for the country,” he added.