KARACHI: Indian tennis star Sania Mirza has appealed for help for flood-ravaged Pakistan, saying that she and her husband, Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik, were doing “everything that we can in our own, silent way” for people affected by the deluge.
The death toll from floods itself has touched 1,559, including 551 children and 318 women, with at least nine people dying on Monday of infectious and water-borne diseases that have attacked tens of thousands of people in Pakistan. The disease deaths have crossed 300.
“It’s devastating to see calamities happening in so many places in the world. My heart goes out to the people who are losing their lives because of no fault of their own and may Allah ease it for them,” Mirza said in an interview earlier this month. “I don’t like to talk about what we do or contribute, but we are doing everything that we can in our own, silent way. Every little bit means a lot so everybody should help.”
Mirza became the first Indian to win a Women’s Tennis Association event in 2005, which marked the beginning of her contributions to several firsts for tennis in the country.
Now, the 35-year-old is carving out plans for a future beyond the court, and has spent the past year setting up a tennis academy in Dubai, after establishing several similar facilities in India. Two chapters of the academy are currently up and running in the UAE.
“Dubai is my second home, it has been for a long time,” she said, speaking from her UAE house. “Our dream is to try to encourage young boys and girls to not just pick up cricket, but to pick up tennis and actually be good at it. Who knows, maybe we’ll have a champion from Dubai someday.”
“If I’m able to inspire even one girl to pick up a tennis racket, it would mean a lot.”
Mirza last month announced her withdrawal from the US Open because of a torn tendon, adding that the injury would lead to a change in her retirement plans. In January this year she had announced she would be retiring at the end of the 2022 season.
“I still haven’t recovered from my injury, so I am unsure about my [retirement] plans at the moment,” she said. “Once I recuperate and begin training and playing, I will plan my next move.”
Mirza, who first picked up the racket when she was six, has won six Grand Slam titles, including three mixed doubles trophies. When her singles career was cut short by wrist injuries, she reinvented herself as a doubles player and went on to become the first Indian to reach the top of the WTA doubles rankings in April 2015.
But the accomplishments that catapulted her to international fame were not without their challenges, Mirza said.
“I was the first to be able to win so many titles, but what people don’t realize is that it was difficult to be the first one because there is no path to follow, you’re learning from your own mistakes,” she said.
The athlete said she faced scrutiny when she decided to return to the court after taking maternity leave in 2018 to give birth to her first child.
Before getting pregnant, Mirza said people had assumed the couple, who got married in 2010, could not conceive children.
“People are constantly judging my abilities as a mother. I should not have to choose between being a good mother and being a tennis player. Why can’t I be both? Why am I being questioned if I’m able to give my family time, but a man is not being questioned for the same thing?”
“It didn’t occur to them that I am a professional athlete and that maybe my career was more important to me than having a child at that time,” she added.
Believing that she had a “bigger purpose” than merely winning competitions, Mirza’s experience compelled her to be more outspoken about challenges women face in sports.
“I’ve been put in this position where I can reach out to a lot more people and I feel it’s my responsibility to speak about such issues,” Mirza said.
The tennis superstar was also vocal about ageism in sports and said her decision to retire was due to her many injuries.
“The only thing that should matter is if you’re able to win. For me, age is just a number. I’m retiring because I feel like my body is giving up on me.”
With plans to encourage a new generation of young athletes and expand her tennis academy in the UAE, Mirza said a biopic might be in the works, though there was “nothing concrete yet”:
“I want to highlight that everything comes with a price, and every effort to be successful at anything requires sacrifice and commitment. But once you get there, it is special.”