It’s been a bumper crop for India at the Wimbledon Championships this year. Three title winners – in the women’s doubles, mixed doubles and boys’ doubles – is unprecedented in Indian tennis history.
Skeptics say that these three titles don’t necessarily mean Indian tennis is surging ahead, only that this reflects breadth of achievement in a year, not depth of the sport in the country. Where are the singles specialists, they ask?
There may be a point in this line of argument. After all, no Indian has finished even runner-up in singles at any Grand Slam event since Independence. For all that, this year’s triumphs have huge significance according to me. What we are seeing is Indians – even if part of a team — not choking at the crux and going on to win.
This reflects an important change in mindset. The impulse to win, call it `killer instinct’ euphemistically if you will, is becoming stronger. The achievements of this year’s winners will not only inspire more youngsters to take to the sport, but also instill self-belief.
Of course tennis needs to become more `plebian’ in providing opportunities if it has to become a mass sport. Right now, it remains essentially the preserve of the privileged, i.e. those who have access to private clubs, good facilities and coaches.
The All Indian Tennis Association, like most other sports bodies in the country, has not been particularly adept at spreading the gospel of the sport. Internecine politics and power-struggles pervade, relations with players have usually bordered on the fractious. The health of Indian tennis, sadly, still remains sickly.
But for the moment let’s cherish this year’s winners. Of the three, Sania Mirza is distinctive. This is not to diminish the fantastic achievements of the other two but to put the three achievements in perspective.
Leander Paes keeps rolling on
For Leander Paes, this was his 16th Grand Slam title, a mind-boggling statistic in itself. Consider also that he fought back from a debilitating illness more than a decade ago and has had 100 partners, and his body of work becomes a saga.
I’m not done yet. Leander is also now 42, an age when most players would have been retired for 6-7 years and relishing memories of past glory while enjoying the rewards of his performances, rather than toiling on courts all over the world—his story therefore acquires even more dimensions.
Indeed, Leander would be a fascinating case study in the use of mind power allied with physical prowess to become a super athlete. I can’t think of another sportsperson like him from India. But at 42, it must be ceded that he is the Grand Old Man of tennis, and his never-say-die attitude must ultimately give in to the ravages of time.
Seventeen-year-old Sumit Nagal from Haryana is the new Boy Wonder. But it must be remembered that the jump from the juniors to the seniors rank is the most daunting. For the record, he is the 6th Indian to win a junior Wimbledon title, but of these only Leander and Sania among past winners have gone on to make a mark at the higher level. Nagal’s task is cut out.
Sania at her peak
In this context, Sania emerges as the flag-bearer of Indian tennis going ahead. In the past few years she has shown not just the skill and mental wherewithal to compete at the highest level, but a deep ambition to win. At 28, she is at the peak of her prowess.
From a player with enormous promise when she became a professional in 2003 at age 17, Sania’s career has been a roller-coaster ride. Till she retired from singles competitions, she was rated as the number 1 player from India in both singles and doubles, but the fact is that by 2010, she was already being relegated by critics to a has-been.
The turnaround for Sania has been dramatic ever since she made doubles events her preferred choice. She had achieved her highest WTA singles ranking (27) in 2007 and had famous victories over many higher ranked players. But in a couple of years, injuries forced her to rethink her future.
In 2011, after undergoing wrist surgery, she found her singles play limited. The choice was to quit the game or quit singles. Having won her maiden Grand Slam mixed doubles title in the 2009 Australian Open, she sensed an opportunity and retired from singles in 2013.
A terrific run over the past year
The past 15 months have been terrific for Sania as she won the mixed doubles at the French and US Opens in 2014. Getting Martina Hingis, former world no. 1, partner in 2015 (incidentally, Hingis now also partners Leander in mixed doubles) proved to be an inspired choice, and the two quickly climbed to number 1, justifying the top ranking in the recently concluded Wimbledon Championships.
A linear, plain-vanilla narrative, however, does not do justice to Sania. It belies the struggles, the heavy odds she has had to fight to be where she is today. In a sense, this is true of most women sportspersons in India as they fight misogyny and societal conservatism to find full expression of their personalities.
Take the three leading ladies from Indian sport, i.e. Sania, Saina Nehwal and Mary Kom and their stories run on fairly the same track. Saina, badminton champion, is a Haryanvi who could only pursue her sport in Hyderabad. The girl child is still seen as a burden in large sections of her home state, so encouraging a girl to play sport was almost heresy.
Mary Kom from Manipur chose to be a boxer which, given the social milieu she came from, stupefied and angered her community and state. The only leeway that could be given to her was to find some occupation, but boxing was anathema. Some even went to the extent of branding her as `not a woman’.
Sania comes from a Muslim family. Even for someone from a fairly well-to-do and educated background, sport was not only non-essential, but a strict no-no. It would break tradition and tehzeeb, and perhaps the ultimate rebuke, make her ineligible in the marriage market.
The hardship for girls/women to participate in sports is not restricted to these three, but endemic and the biggest constraint in my opinion to India becoming a `sporting nation’. How is this possible if 50 per cent of the population is not allowed to participate in sport?
If Saina, Mary Kom and Sania made the breakthrough, it is because of their own strong will and hard work of course, but largely because of support from their families who refused to be cowed down by social and peer group pressure.
It is my case though that even among these three stellar champions the hardship quotient was the highest for Sania simply because she has had to overcome obstacles at every stage of her life, even when she was established. The layers of discrimination have been multiple.
When she started out, the ultra-conservatives Muslims in Hyderabad decried that she dared to play in skirts. Why, she once even had a fatwa issued again her for `public immorality’. The wisdom of such fatwa givers is often in inverse proportion to the size of their beards. But their influence and pressure can often break the most hardy.
In 2010 Sania’s affront to religio-societal sensitivities went a couple of notches higher. She broke off her engagement and decided to marry a person of her choice. This was felony compounded, for not only was she still in skirts on court, but had also shown that she had a mind of her own.
What set the cat amongst the pigeons, and not just in her community, that the man she chose to marry after breaking engagement was Shoaib Malik, the former Pakistan cricket captain. It created an uproar in the country, particularly from Hindutva bigotry brigade who saw this as a sell-out of the country rather than as a personal choice. To marry a Pakistanis was nothing short of blasphemy as far as these people were concerned. Desh drohi they called her. There were nasty and sexually abusive posts on the social media, apart from many questioning her patriotism.
So much so that when Sania initially refused to participate in the Asian Games in 2014 to ensure that her WTA rankings did not suffer, she was accused of short-selling the country. It was conveniently forgotten that even Leander Paes had taken a similar position without being similarly maligned.
Questioning her Indianness
When I interviewed Sania for NewsX channel before the French Open this year, I asked her how the constant diatribe questioning her `Indianness’ had affected her. “Initially it unnerved me. There are only so many people you can respond to. Then I decided that I have to do what I have to do. What I have no control over, is not something I should bother about. My performances will speak for themselves,” she said.
The Wimbledon doubles title is her rebuff to her detractors of all hues and from all quarters. In the past few years, one has also seen her evolved into a mature, more controlled person, unwilling to enter into unseemly brouhahas.
This does not mean that her chutzpah is diluted. She remains vivacious, even saucy at times, likes to dress and live well, enjoys being on the social media and has made a considerable number of friends in the world of glamour, art and business.
But Sania has not lapsed into callous superstardom. While she enjoys her status, she still speaks her mind. In the controversy preceding the 2012 London Olympics, when she became the bone of contention between Leander and Mahesh Bhupathi to be their doubles partner, Sania put her foot down. She was unwilling to be taken for granted.
In the past few years, she has also emerged as a symbol and spokesperson for women’s rights in India. She is forthright and unrelenting in her view that women must have a choice, that womanhood cannot be trampled upon. “Have a dream and live it”,’ is her call to her gender in the country.
As for the critics, she is scarce with words, opting instead to make her point on court with the booming forehand for a winner.