In Tokyo, one last dance for Sania Mirza | Olympic Games
In June, Sania Mirza posted a photo on her Instagram Stories – walking to Wimbledon with her tennis kit; hand in hand with his son Izhaan; back to the camera. The legend said: the last dance.
Five years ago, when she was on the verge of winning an Olympic medal in Rio, the idea of ââher still flaunting her moves on the tennis court before the Tokyo Olympics was a far-fetched idea for Mirza.
âIf someone had told me at the last Olympics that I would have another chance, I would have laughed at it,â said Mirza. “But hey, here I am. “
So here she is – getting ready for her fourth Olympic appearance at 34; dabble between being a tennis pro and a mother of a two-year-old; give his dreams of an elusive Olympic medal a final boost to reality by competing in the Tokyo Games with his doubles protected ranking of World No.9 in partnership with Ankita Raina.
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It has been a physical and emotional roller coaster for Mirza in the longer-than-usual period between the two Olympics. In October 2017, a knee injury forced her to take time off tennis, a year in which she and her husband Shoaib Malik welcomed their baby boy. Then Mirza took small steps on her return to the sport herself, returning to the pro tour in January of last year and winning her return tournament in Hobart.
Then a calf injury at the Australian Open cut her off again. Then, Covid-19 made the whole world stop. Then Covid hit Mirza; she recovered from the virus and returned on tour in March of this year. Then the second wave that saw countries close their borders to Indians saw Mirza scramble to secure a British visa for her son to be with her as she prepared for Tokyo on the tour’s turf swing.
It took ministry-level intervention for the UK government to issue last-minute visas for Izhaan and Mirza’s sister, both of whom had to undergo hotel quarantines while Mirza competed at WTA Eastbourne ahead of Wimbledon. Mirza could not see Izhaan for nine days.
âIt’s just difficult with the whole situation. I mean, it’s hard enough not having kids to be in there and travel during a pandemic, but with a toddler it gets even harder. But there’s not much we can do except accept it and deal with it in the best possible way, âsaid Mirza.
Mirza will also have to stay away from her son for a few more days in Tokyo, because Izhaan will not accompany Mirza in the restricted environment of these Olympics. Why, then, is Mirza ready to go the extra mile in the final rounds of an already celebrated career in which she topped the doubles world rankings, won six Grand Slam titles and medals at the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games?
Part of the answer lies in the only major title missing from the champion’s book, which Mirza was only a few good points off the script when she and Rohan Bopanna lost the mixed doubles semi-finals 6-2, 2-6, 3-10 against Americans Venus Williams and Rajeev Ram at the 2016 Games. The Indians then lost in the bronze medal match against Czech pair Radek Stepanek and Lucie Hradecka.
Five years later, Mirza finds meaning in this pain.
âIt was one of the most painful moments of my life, not being able to win this (Olympic) medal after being so close to it. It was just extremely, extremely painful. Which in itself is pretty motivating for me now. And if you are not motivated for the Olympics, to compete for your country, then why do you even play tennis? I’m really, really motivated for Tokyo, âsaid Mirza.
Men’s doubles and mixed have been India’s brightest Olympic medal hopefuls in tennis lately, with Mirza being the crucial cog in the latter. However, she won’t have the chance to improve on the bitter memories of Rio this time around with her close friend Bopanna, as Bopanna and Divij Sharan failed to qualify in the men’s doubles.
In Tokyo, Mirza will be in the company of Raina, who created some doubles firsts this year: a Grand Slam debut, a WTA title, a place in the top 100. This is territory that none of the three previous Olympic partners. de Mirza in women’s doubles had failed to penetrate. Sunitha Rao (Beijing 2008) got the best doubles ranking in 108th, Rushmi Chakravarthi (London 2012) 252nd and Prathana Thombare (Rio 2016) 125th. This is why Mirza thinks the Indian women’s duo will be more than just a participant in these Games.
âAnkita is definitely, at least in the standings, the best I have played with in India. She’s been playing well the last few years, and when she plays for the country she tends to go up a few notches. Usually when we’ve gone to women’s doubles (at the Olympics) it’s more of a performance than an expectation to win. But this time we have a chance to fight. We’ll be the underdogs, but it’s going to be fun. And it’s great to jump into something with a chance, âsaid Mirza.
The two also made a conscious effort to integrate well on and off the pitch, a welcome change from the great Indian tennis controversies leading up to the Games. Raina and Mirza spent a week together at the latter’s home in Dubai in April before the play-offs of world group Billie Jean King Cup (for which the Mirza-Raina combo played a role in India’s historic qualification in last March). The two also spent time together in the UK while playing – and competing in mixed doubles – at Wimbledon.
âI’ve known Ankita for a long time now, but it was nice spending time and training together in Dubai. It was a good thing for both of us to get to know each other better and also to get to know each other’s games better. It helps with chemistry, âMirza said.
With finer chemistry and a fighting chance, Mirza has an air of optimism around her last dance on the Olympic stage.
âThere were a lot of champions at the Olympics that nobody expected them to win,â said Mirza. âSo I think every time we step on the pitch – whether it’s Leander (Paes) and me or Mahesh (Bhupathi) and me or Rohan and myself – we always have a chance. Because we went there, we played at the highest level for a long time, we won Grand Slam tournaments. So yes, we have a chance. And I would like to believe that I have the courage to play well in the Olympics. “