New Ground: Sania Mirza
5, 2005: "I see something very bright coming up,
but we need patience. Now that people know that the
game is there and how much hard work it takes, I'm sure
we'll have a lot more Indian women on the circuit very
Under a clear evening sky in Stanford, California, Sania
Mirza walked out onto centre court to a sell-out crowd
at the Taube Family Tennis Stadium to contest her second
round match against former world No.1 Venus Williams.
Contrary to what could be assumed, however, the capacity
crowd of 4,353 was just as much a function of Mirza's
presence as it was the reigning Wimbledon champion's.
The Indian teenager has been breaking new ground this
season for a country of over one billion people, and
it doesn't look like anything is going to stop her from
going even higher in the years to come.
in the heavily-populated city of Mumbai, which is situated
on the western coast of India along the Arabian Sea,
and raised in the smaller, more laid-back city of Hyderabad
on the eastern coast along the Bay of Bengal, Mirza's
focus during her early years was not always on tennis.
She began playing the sport at age six when her mother
Naseema, who runs her own printing press, would take
her to the local tennis courts during summer holidays
on the way to swimming, always one of her other main
interests. The young girl quickly took a liking to the
sport, but had to overcome obstacles from the beginning.
mother took me to a coach, who initially refused to
coach me because I was too small," said Mirza.
"After a month, he called my parents to say he'd
never seen a player that good at such a young age."
the summer, Mirza would play several times a week, and
began contesting her first local tournaments at age
seven. With few expectations and little pressure coming
from her parents, who nevertheless supported her unconditionally,
she developed a keen motivation to improve, working
hard from the start to become the best player she could
"After I started playing, it just kept improving,"
said Mirza, whose other childhood interests included
dancing, studying, Indian history and English, which
she speaks fluently. "I never put pressure on myself
to make it big in tennis; I just took it step by step."
was 12, her hard work, determination and positive attitude
paid off, as she won the under-14 and under-16 Indian
national championships. It was then that the hard-hitting
teenager began taking the idea of making tennis into
a career seriously.
was when I really knew I wanted to be a professional
player," said Mirza, who received her first sponsorship
with adidas soon after her junior national titles. "Obviously,
the main challenge I faced was financial. My parents
had to struggle at first, but when I was 13 years old
I got a sponsor, which I'm actually still with today."
to overcoming her financial hurdles, Mirza would also
have to realize she was about to travel the road untravelled.
India had never had a successful female tennis player
on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, and the sport of tennis
was and still is greatly overshadowed in India by cricket,
a national obsession.
from India, you have no tradition of female tennis players,
and people thought I was stupid," said Mirza, who
grew up admiring 22-time Grand Slam champion Steffi
Graf. "However, in India, it's not like every girl
has to become a doctor or a lawyer - they can be anything
they want, and I knew that this was right.
a person, you earn the respect you get by working hard
and giving your best, and people appreciate it - being
a sportsperson is the same, it makes no difference if
you're a man or a woman."
played her first pro tournaments on the ITF Women's
Circuit in India in 2001 aged 14, winning six of nine
matches. Between 2002 and 2004, Mirza played almost
exclusively on the ITF Circuit, accumulating a 90-13
overall record and claiming 12 singles titles. She also
made her Tour singles debut as a wildcard at Hyderabad
in 2003, the same year she collected the Wimbledon junior
doubles title with Russian Alisa Kleybanova. In 2004,
she played her second and third career Tour events at
Hyderabad and Casablanca, losing in the first round
again at both. But Mirza managed to make history that
year on the Tour in doubles, becoming the first Indian
woman in history to win a Tour event by claiming the
doubles title at Hyderabad with Liezel Huber.
in early 2005 at the Australian Open, Hyderabad and
Dubai where Mirza made her more publicized breakthroughs.
As a wildcard into Melbourne in January, Mirza became
the first Indian woman to reach the third round at a
Grand Slam, squandering a 4-2 lead in the second set
before losing to eventual champion Serena Williams 61
64. Mirza then travelled back home to Hyderabad in February,
where she made history and thrilled her home crowd once
again, becoming the youngest Indian, male or female,
to claim a Tour singles title when she won her debut
title in only her fifth Tour-level main draw at the
barnstorming run caused a sensation in her hometown
event, where hundreds of would-be spectators were turned
away as the stadium was full to overflowing with tennis
fans, new and old.
added another milestone to her impressive start to 2005
in early March, notching her first win over a Top 10
player at Dubai, coming back from a 4-0 first-set deficit
to stun reigning US Open champion and then-world-No.7
Svetlana Kuznetsova 64 62 en route to a quarterfinal
finish at the $1,000,000 Tier II event.
year has obviously been huge for me," said Mirza,
who broke into the Top 100 after her run at Hyderabad,
and is currently ranked No.59 in the world. "I've
come far, but I'm definitely not satisfied. I feel like
I'm improving on a daily basis - I'm working hard for
what I want, and I just want to be the best I can."
meteoric rise up the rankings has been accompanied by
exploding popularity in her native India and with Indian
populations all over the world. She is often cheered
on by large, flag-waving Indian crowds at tournaments
around the globe and has received an incredible amount
of media attention, including public appearance requests
- she's helping promote the inaugural Tier III Sony
Ericsson WTA Tour event in Kolkata, the Sunfeast Open,
next month - and numerous offers of endorsements. Back
home in India, she travels with security whenever she
enjoy every bit of it," said Mirza on the attention.
"People are really excited in India. They've never
had a woman do something like this before."
to all of the positive media attention, Mirza also has
to deal with the expectations of a nation when she steps
onto the tennis court. This type of pressure has been
known to curtail players' progress in the past, but
Mirza seems comfortable with the expectations and understands
it is all part of the legend she is potentially creating
okay with the pressure, because I play better under
pressure," she said. "A person who achieves
success learns to deal with stuff like that. They learn
that that's just the way it's going to be when you do
focus on Mirza has also helped cultivate a greater following
of tennis in India, which has always been overshadowed
by the country's obsession with cricket.
is quite a bit of tennis coverage, but whenever cricket
is shown, the country comes to a standstill," said
Mirza, who believes if she were born a boy, her father
Imran, a former cricketer who is now a builder, would
have probably encouraged her into the sport. "Right
now, tennis is definitely moving up, but first there
is always cricket. Cricket is a tradition; that's not
going to change. There is no competition between the
just want people to know they can play other sports
too, and make a career out of them. They now know what
tennis is; they know now that everything isn't just
cricket, so more people are learning how to play tennis,
and the sport is growing."
knows the future growth of tennis in India doesn't just
depend on her and her achievements, but on an upcoming
crop of junior players that, with her in the public
eye, will have somebody to look up to and follow. However,
at just 18 years of age, Mirza is at the stage where
she still has to focus on her own career.
now, I'm still young, and I'm at the stage where I still
have to develop my own game," she said. "But
whenever kids come up to me to ask for advice, I love
to help. I know I would love to become involved with
juniors in the future."
hard work has been paying off this year, and despite
losing that second round match to Williams in Stanford,
she knows she is well on her way to achieving her dreams.
the long-term, I have a long way to go. I'm satisfied
with what I have, but not satisfied enough. I believe
in working hard, and I'll see where the future takes