Sania Mirza opens up to Derek Abraham on a range of issues, including Olympic controversy, tie-up with Bob Bryan and hubby Shoaib Malik. Excerpts:
When did you strike a deal with Bob Bryan?
I have known Bob for a long time. For a couple of years, we talked about playing together but it never worked out because both of us were committed to our compatriots due to the Olympics. We spoke after the US Open and everything fell into place. We’ll play together at the Australian Open in January.
Bob is known to be quite a character...
The brothers are really witty. I know Bob a little better than Mike. You know what, his daughter (Micaela Bryan) has a Twitter handle (@Micaela Bryan) and she is just one! He keeps posting pictures of hers with everyone and Bob writes these one-liners. So yes, he’s fun to be with.
Have you talked to Bob about visiting India?
(Laughs) I will. I’ll let you know.
How has your playing career changed after marriage?
I’ve become more patient in general.
So has it got something to do with your husband (Shoaib Malik)?
Yes, a lot! When we have an argument, I just go on and on and then I ask him ‘so, you’ve nothing to say?’ And he just says ‘hmmm, OK’ and that reaction of his irritates me even more (laughs). His patience is his best quality.
You watched the nationals recently? Did you come across any player who could go on and become like Sania Mirza?
Unfortunately, no. And that’s pretty bad. I really want to give something back to the game, to my country. And that’s why I’ve decided to start an academy in Hyderabad.
Will it be called the Sania Mirza Academy?
Yes, that’s the name. The land wasn’t given to me. We bought it. There was no government funding. I’m willing to spend my money. Actually, I WANT to spend my money.
Could you talk about the facilities there?
The academy is located about 25 km away from Hyderabad city. We’ll have nine courts, including hardcourts, claycourts and grasscourts. There will also be a clubhouse, a gym. It’ll be operational by February or March.
So you’re pumping in all your money? Why not invite a corporate giant?
I am not pumping in all my money (laughs). When I say I want to give something back to the game, I mean it. Eventually, we may tie up with a corporate but, for the moment, we are bearing the cost.
So it’s a conscious effort on your part...
We want to help kids not just from India, but from all over the sub-continent. I keep meeting so many players from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and they tell me they don’t know where to practise. So this is for kids from the entire region.
Does this idea stem from your middle-class background?
Yes, I was brought up in a middle-class family but we were comfortable. But putting in Rs 50 lakh year after year was not easy. And I am talking about the early 2000s. I wasn’t earning. I know how my family struggled. But we’ve learnt along the way and we want to share this experience with others.
Mahesh Bhupathi had raised the same issue, that of India not producing good players...
You can’t blame the system all the time. We are part of the system. None of us came up through the system, so to speak. Tennis is not the No 1 sport in the country. When I used to tell people I want to play Wimbledon one day, they used to laugh! At that point, you do tend to doubt yourself. ‘OK, I am from Hyderabad, a small city. Will I make it?’ But hey, I made it to Wimbledon. I won Wimbledon (girls singles, 2003). So the fact is that you must learn to fight the odds. The system is doing its bit. I have been saying this ever since the Olympics fiasco. I hope I can get the AITA to associate with the academy, somehow.
What did you learn from the Olympics fiasco? That it is still a man’s world?
What I said then was what I felt. After that, we made peace. But they realised that they had made a mistake. That’s what my press statement was all about. The situation had become so ugly. As an Indian, I was hurt. I really hope and pray I don’t get to face anything like this again.
Did you hurt more because the parties involved were your friends?
I guess they forgot that I am an individual and that I have a heart, mind and mouth of my own.
The country backed you...
It was unbelievable. I was touched by all the support.
Let’s talk about your singles career...
I have had three surgeries (both knees and wrist) in the last four years. I need to be smart about my choices. Do I think I can play singles? Yes. The last time I played singles, I beat three top-100 players before my knees gave in. Do I think I get can back to top 30 in the world? Yes, I do. But for that, I would have to put my body through so much stress. And if I have another surgery, it’ll be very difficult for my body to take that. I’ll take a call on that soon.
Why is it that India always produces world-class doubles players, but not so many singles players?
When I was ranked 27 in the world, I think I became the first Indian since Vijay Amritraj to be ranked in the top-30. A lot has to do with the fact that the game has become very physical. Maybe, it’s got to do with our genes. We don’t usually work on our physical strength like the others do...
Pakistan are scheduled to visit India for a short series. You must be double happy...
(Laughs) Shoaib visits India even otherwise! It’s going to an amazing series.