Thursday, February 23, 2023

Farewell to the Forehand of Fire

If it seems like Sania Mirza has been on the tour for ages, well--it's because she has. Mirza began her WTA career in 2003, when she showed up with a forehand that demonstrated why her favorite player was Steffi Graf. But having one of the deadliest forehands ever seen on the tour also cost Mirza, who was sustaining wrist injuries as early as 2007. Eventually, she would play doubles exclusively, a move which allowed her to significantly reduce her injuries.

In 2005, Mirza became the first Indian woman to win a WTA tournament when she won her hometown event in Hyderabad. Ten years later, she would become the first Indian woman to attain a number 1 ranking (in doubles), and the first Indian woman to win a major, when she and Martina Hingis won Wimbledon.

Mirza won 43 doubles titles, including the aforementioned 2015 Wimbledon title, the 2015 U.S. Open (also with Martina Hingis), and the 2016 Australian Open (with Hingis). She also won three major mixed doubles titles: the 2009 Australian Open (with Mahesh Bhupathi), the 2012 French Open (also with Bhupathi), and the 2014 U.S. Open (with Bruno Soares). Mirza also won the WTA Finals in 2014 (with Cara Black) and 2015 (with Hingis).

In 2018, Mirza went on maternity leave. She returned to the tour in 2020, won the first tournament that she entered, and returned to the top 25 in doubles.

In 2014, Mirza was appointed brand ambassador for the Indian state of Telangana. She was also the first Asian woman to be named UN Women Goodwill Embassador for South Asia. Mirza, who has established a tennis academy in Hyderabad, used her influence in 2012 to bring about the awarding of equal prize money for all tennis tournaments in India. 

I was disappointed--though not surprised--a few years ago, when the Indian star and activist told a journalist that she wasn't a feminist. The word's meaning has become so distorted, I suppose, that women who support social, economic and political equality for women (i.e., feminism) find ways to avoid claiming the identity (e.a., Christina Aguilera's "I don't want to be labeled" and Patti Smith's "reasoning," which is so outrageously upside down-ridiculous that I won't even go into it here). 

Many years ago, the mother of a WTA player told me that Mirza and her mother--who often accompanied Mirza to tournaments--were the nicest, most gracious people that she had encountered on the tour. This didn't surprise me--Sania Mirza, whose early career was sometimes overshadowed by controversy (e.a., in 2005, a group of Muslim clerics ordered her to wear long tunics and headscarves when she competed), had to learn, early on, to handle not only the pressure of being a professional athlete, but also the pressure of bearing publicity that she never sought.

This week, the 36-year-old Mirza retired from professional tennis, leaving a legacy that includes the expansion of tennis in India, a model of grace under pressure, a stellar doubles career---and a forehand of fire.

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