Walk the Talk
Wednesday, March 02, 2005 at 0000 hours IST
ĎI know my Indian culture... Iím not going to pose in a bikinií
18-year old Sania Mirza became Indiaís equivalent of Tiger Woods when she became the first Indian woman to reach the third round of the Australian Open. Although she went down to Serena Williams, she put up a spirited fight and won international acclaim for her hard-hitting serves and tremendous energy. Days later, she became the first Indian woman to win a WTA event ó on home turf in Hyderabad ó which sealed her status as a youth icon. Sheís now endorsing a range of products from mobile phones to cosmetics but tells Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief of The Indian Express, on NDTV 24X7ís Walk the Talk, that her love and passion for tennis holds centrestage in her life and she hopes to be among the top 50 players by the end of the year.
ē She is perhaps the most loved teenager in this country since Sachin Tendulkar burst on the scene. Sania Mirza, welcome to Walk the Talk in your school, which you left last year.
It is an even greater pleasure to be here. Itís just so lovely to see my school uniform again.
ē But you donít have to study, no exams, no nothing...
Yeah thatís the better part of it. I donít have to write my exams, and I donít have to study. But I do have my exams coming up shortly in my BA Mass Communication so...
ē But more than that exam... You know, the next tournament.
I think those are tougher exams than what I actually gave last year over here, sitting in that hall downstairs. Getting up at six in the morning and playing week after week.
ē Whatís tougher: the Class XII student fighting for grades and percentages to get into college, or now ó getting up, exercise, gym, training...
Well, for me, I donít know... Itís right now...
ē The media?
Yes, thatís tough. But for me right now, itís tennis and itís really bad because I have to get up in the morning and... You know, every single day of my life, just practicing eight hours a day. I am sure it is the same thing for all the people trying to get 95 per cent in their boards also. So I guess itís wrong to compare these two things.
ē But 95 per cent, even 99 per cent in the boards, tells them you need to earn your living next year...
Yes, but I think for some people it is very important to get 95 per cent or 98 per cent. But when I gave my boards I just wanted to pass.
ē But you did fine.
Yes, got about 64, so it was okay.
ē Tell me, whatís your day like now?
Well, right now, I am on an off because my ankles are both injured. So I am just taking it easy, sleeping late, getting up late...
ē But usually, during your training time, whatís your day like?
Well, when I am training, I get up at six in the morning. I am at the courts by 7:15 am, warm up, practice till about 9:30-10 am. I come back, have breakfast, go to college, do whatever little work I have in college. Then by 2 pm, I have to come back. I am back at the tennis court at 2:30 pm, have lunch, maybe in the car or something. I come back at 6 pm, go to the gym, then return by 7:30 pm. I am dead by 7:30 pm, sometimes I may go for a massage after that, or I am just asleep by 10:30 pm.
ē Is there any difference in the way you train from the way your rivals train?
Well, I really donít know. Maybe some of them train less than what I do, some of them may train more than I do. So I really donít know how to compare that. But I know I am training hard, eight hours a day, 365 days a year. I donít think it is easy.
ē It is tough on the body as well.
Definitely. Thatís why we end up with so many injuries, I guess. Right now, both my ankles are injured and I have a little bit of thigh strain. So injuries are just a part of every athlete, whether tennis player or cricketer.
ē Thatís what happens to sportstars in this country. Sachin Tendulkar gets a bad elbow, the entire country gets a bad elbow.
I know. Everyday I read about my ankles more than I know about my ankles. Well, thatís the way India treats their stars, treats their idols.
ē And loads of advice, from homeopathy to acupressure...
Loads of advice, homeopathy to allopathy to physiotherapy...
ē So, who looks after your body and your fitness?
Over here, I train with a guy called Fayaaz, he is from EST ó thatís Azharuddinís gym here. My physiotherapist, well, the Indian cricket teamís, actually the Hyderabad cricket teamís is Mr Badrinath. Heís treating me right now, I did take a stint with Andrew Leipus too, but he is not here any more so...
ē I believe Azhar takes a lot of interest in your fitness...
Yes, he does. He is a great inspiration for me. I mean he is such a great athlete and...
ē He has been one of our fittest cricketers.
He probably is one of the fittest.
ē I have not seen someone his age with such a flat stomach.
Definitely, at 42-43... He gives me a complex. He is unbelievably fit, and whenever he is in town he tries to advise me.
ē Is there something that he complains about?
Yes, that I eat too much... Everytime I am with him, I have to tell him my whole diet for the past one week, which I hate doing. So I try to cut down when I am around him. I try not to eat so I donít have to lie to him.
ē So when one Hyderabadi questions another on what you eat and how much you eat, itís all about biryani isnít it?
Definitely, but I have cut down on my biryanis quite a lot.
ē Do you think that tennis involves a lot of self denial. You know, not just fitness and eating but also the kind of life you lead, the circuit?
I guess in any sport you have to give a lot of sacrifices, but tennis is never-ending. Definitely, it is one of the toughest sports I have seen.
ē Cricket has a season...
Yes, in tennis, you are playing all year round. And you are missing out on your normal life I guess. But now it all seems worth it, you know, when you perform. I guess when you donít perform, thatís when it really hits you that maybe I am taking a wrong decision. But what the hell, I mean you have to take risks in life.
ē Were there moments when you thought is this worth it?
When I was younger...there were definitely moments.
ē Younger means what... when you were six?
When I was 13 or 14, when I wasnít winning so much, but everyone was saying you are good, you are going to start winning. And I was like, when am I going to start winning. Suddenly, everything just clicked. Now, I am so passionate about the game that even if you ask me to stop, I donít think I can stop playing.
ē So whatís the target now? You have done your top 100 much ahead of target, isnít it? You have saved yourself six months.
No, I have saved myself 10 months, I said by the end of 2005 I would like to be in the top 100. I am testing myself by saying I want to be top 50 by the end of the year. Letís hope I can do it. Letís hope it comes before time as well.
ē Itís one thing to get from 150 to 99, or top 100. Itís quite another to get to top 50. How much of a leap do you think that is? How difficult is it?
See, in terms of points, I need about 300 more points to get into top 50. Just by these two tournaments, I think I have got about more than 150 points. If I have a couple of more tournaments like these, anything can happen. But it could also happen that I have a bad phase and I donít play like this. But itís okay, I am not going to be disappointed. Of course, I am going to be a little upset, but I guess thatís just a part of it.
ē When you see see the women in the top 50 today, do a lot of them look beatable?
Definitely. Actually last year, I played Nicole Pratt and the year before I played Amely too. She is around 45, Nicole is around 51. I played three sets against both of them. My fitness level wasnít as high as it is now, my serve wasnít as strong as it is now. So I guess I can match quite a bit...
ē But your return of serve was always a killer.
My return of serve, yes, it is one of the strongest points of my game.
ē We have seen you turn around your game from difficult situations, match points, deuces....
My return of serve definitely is one of the strongest points in my game, and I am very confident. I think it is just because of my timing...that I have the timing.
ē In fact, when you were playing in Australia, one of the commentators said that we have seen in Saniaís game the same element of touch and timing that is the hallmark of Indian tennis. He said we saw this in Amritraj. This is very true of Indian cricketers as well, particularly the Hyderabadi cricketers ó Azhar, Laxman, the touch, timing...
Yes, but I am not much of a touch player. I am a very offensive player. I donít like drop shots and chip-and-charge, you know. I am more of the hitting kind, the winning kind.
ē But you have got timing.
I have got timing and I think that is why I hit the ball harder than some of the boys do. Because I have the timing, though I donít look muscular or anything. I hit the ball as hard as perhaps some of the men do.
ē What was the thought in your mind when you were up against Serena? Watching you on TV, one could see some sense of amusement. It was like you were enjoying it too much.
Well initially, yes, I was enjoying it, no doubt about that. I was very happy to be playing against Serena, so excited that I was playing Serena Williams... I could not believe that three nights back, I was sleeping in my bed and seeing my draw and thinking that I might play Serena in the third round, and today I am playing her. So, it was an amazing feeling. And I was tense because I was thinking so much about the match. I was tense, when I am never tense during my matches. As everyone could see, in the first sets, I had a few unlucky points, some net calls that came over to my side instead of going that way, and that made the difference.
ē You know, your father complained to me that you are not somehow focussed, not so intense in the first set. Then he said that if she loses one, then she is like a wounded tigress.
Well, I think the first set... It was just that I was playing a big tournament, a big round, a big player, a massive player, if you can say that... So I knew I had to go out there and just have fun and enjoy. But then I was just thinking so much about playing Serena in front of such a big crowd, and so many people cheering for both of us... I was obviously the underdog there. Playing the second set, I think I matched her in the second set, and she obviously was getting under pressure.
ē Let me move beyond top 50. What is your ambition?
My ambition, to be honest, is to be in the top 25. Because I believe in being realistic. Maybe if I get into the top 25 in the next two years, maybe then I would say that I want to get into the top 10.
ē The last Indian to get somewhere up there was Vijay Amritraj.
Yes, so right now, I want to be in the top 25, maybe in about two to two-and-half years from now.
ē Thatís a good time frame. How long do you see yourself playing?
It really depends on my body, you know, because we are ending up in so many injuries.
ē Itís a very high-stress game now.
Definitely. And it is so physical. You need that 110 per cent every time you walk in the court. It is tough to do that. I have been doing it for 13 years now, and I already feel it. But you keep doing it till as long as you can... Till I am enjoying the game. I think thatís what matters.
ē But tennis is a very young peopleís game now. Itís one thing for us to say that Sania Mirza, at 18, carrying hopes of an entire country... But 18 is a pretty mature age for womenís tennis, isnít it?
Yes it is. I know people are retiring at 22-23, they are ending up in so many injuries. Martina Hingis did. So many people... Henin underwent injury. I was just reading in the papers today that she came back after about a year and won her match. So people are ending up in so many injuries... So anything can happen, I could play till 29, I could stop at 22.
ē But you see in the top 25-top 50, women of your age group, some even younger.
Definitely. But I guess itís just the way theyíve been trained all these years. You know, the number of coaches they have had, the best coaches in the world, the best training partners. They are at a certain advantage with their height and physical fitness too ó they are 6 feet tall, I am five seven-and-half. But over here, I look like some giant. Then when I go abroad...
ē You talked a lot about your foreign competition having had the benefit of scientific coaching, foreign coaches, very controlled environment. Do you regret not having had some of that?
Well, I donít need to regret it, because Iím still 99 in the world. But maybe some people should think that I do have a disadvantage. Because people tell me you are 18 and still 99. But they donít understand the amount of hard work thatís gone in being an Indian tennis player. You donít have proper courts...
ē You are far too spunky and far too talented to be satisfied with being in the 90s or 80s. You are aiming higher. For that, do you think itís necessary to go to a regulated foreign coaching environment?
I did go to Brett last year for a few weeks. Because of my ankles, I am just going to maybe try and play a few tournaments, see how I feel. After that, we will see how it goes.
ē So you might consider shifting and training for longer periods?
It really depends. I donít know. Training for longer periods, maybe, but I donít know if I want to shift my base.
ē Why, is it tough to stay away from home?
Yes, it is. Tough to stay away from biryani. I hope Azhar isnít watching.
ē Azhar will watch. If he doesnít we will let him know because all of us have a stake in your not eating too much biryani now.
I am not.
ē Thatís the other thing Sania, you are carrying so much hope and expectation you know. You saw the crowds you had, and now you know that you are a star. You canít hide from the fact. How much more pressure does it bring on you?
It definitely brings a lot of pressure on me. People are always expecting much more from me than what I actually can do, I feel. And till now, I donít know how I have always lived up to a lot of expectations, maybe not to all of the peopleís but to a lot of expectations. So, I am very happy at the way I have come through in my career till now. But the pressure is always going to be there, I guess. Itís just a part of it...
ē Do you ever exchange notes with other people who have handled the pressure? You have met Rahul Dravid. Recently, of course, you met Azhar. Have you met Sachin?
I have met Sachin, but we never had this kind of talk. It was just very general talk you know, not exactly about how to handle pressure or stuff like that. But I would love to do that.
ē But if you met him on a flight, or had lunch with him, what are the three questions you would ask him?
How do you hit like that ó I feel heís got amazing timing to hit those sixes. I would like to ask him how do you do that when you are so small?
ē Whatís the second question?
How does he handle so many expectations the way he has been over these years? Then how does he cope up with these injuries?
ē All right. Injuries, the power, and the pressure. What about the adulation and the money?
I donít think Sachin needs any more money.
ē Letís not get into the question of who needs what. All those kids who are watching, I think, also figure how much money you are going to make in the times to come.
Well, you know...
ē Why donít you ask him how to manage your money?
First thing is, I donít really care about money. Even today, I donít exactly manage my money. My parents do everything. I donít even know how much the tickets cost. So I am not really a money-minded person. I am playing tennis right now for the passion, and because I love the game so much.
ē Thatís the question I want to ask you. When you go out to play, where does the passion come from? Does it come form hating the opponent, wanting to beat her, or does it come from being wrapped in the Tricolour and playing for the nation? Is it money, is it glory, what is it?
It comes a little from everything, I guess. Yes, it does come from playing for India, having the Indian flag behind you, people saying Sania Mirza from India. It feels very proud to be an Indian.
Secondly, I think it comes from ĎI want to hit her with that ball in her stomachí. I think it comes from that too, I think thatís one of the reasons I hit every ball so hard. I donít know if money really drives me. It doesnít really motivate me.
ē I have talked to people like Vijay Amritraj, Leander. You can see they always performed much better when they were playing for the flag, as against the logo. You know, their Davis Cup performances were much better. How does it work for you, playing for India vs playing for yourself?
I give my 200 per cent everytime I walk on court. And even when I am not playing a team event, I am still playing for India, I am still playing for my country. Even though it is an individual sport, I am still playing for the nation.
ē But will you play for the Fed Cup?
Definitely, it is great to watch all these people with Indian flags and banners saying ĎCome on Indiaí.
ē Is there a difference between Advantage Sania and Advantage India?
There definitely is. I think Advantage India sounds better.
ē And you are very conscious of your Indian identity.
Yes, I am.
ē Itís not just the nose-ring, which, I think, will become a huge fashion statement.
I donít know. I have had this a long time now. But yes, I am very conscious of my Indian identity. I am very proud to be an Indian.
ē Were they surprised on the circuit when they first saw you ó an Indian woman, a young Indian woman?
In the beginning, yes. They probably thought it was a fluke. But when they kept seeing me more on the circuit, it got into their heads that, you know...
ē Especially at Wimbledon, I believe they didnít even have the Indian flag.
They didnít and they were like, sorry we have not had an Indian girl come and play here. Thatís why Wimbledon was so special for me. Because two years later, I went there and won the tournament.
ē So tell me about the incident. I believe they got the wrong flag.
They got the wrong flag and my father just went up to them and said you know youíve got it wrong.
ē And you got furious.
Yes, because they should respect peopleís flags, and they should respect whichever country they come from, whether it is a tennis-playing country or a non tennis-playing country. I was very furious. Two years later, when I won it... I am sure they are not going to forget the Indian flag for a long time now.
ē Thatís the Indian identity. Are you also conscious of your cultural, religious identity? I know you are religious, you pray...
Yes I am. I pray five times a day. I am very conscious about the pillars of Islam. I know my Indian culture, I know what my background says. You know, I do advertisements and stuff like that but if you ask me to pose in a bikini I am not going to do that. My religion doesnít permit it, nor do a lot of other things.
ē You are a religious family but not conservative.
We are conservative too, but to some extent. I mean, maybe the dresses I wear are not exactly right, but I guess Islam does have forgiveness. I donít know if I am doing anything wrong... I am sure God will forgive me.
ē I think any God will forgive you. And any God will forgive anyone who is in competitive sports, but most of all a person like you. Keep getting better and better Sania, we are all with you and may God be with you.