The Indian sporting public have a tendency to “turn against their own”. Some in India consider Sania Mirza’s marriage to the Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik to have been “the ultimate betrayal”, and that she can only redeem herself by winning a medal at this summer’s Olympic Games in London.
India is the world’s largest democracy. And while many of us do not take the time or the effort to exercise our democratic franchise, we consider it our fundamental right to place our public figures on a pedestal in a hurry and pull them down even faster. In India, loyalty for public figures is an exclusive domain, reserved for the likes of Amitabh Bachchan, Sachin Tendulkar, Lata Mangeshkar and the Nehru-Gandhi clan. Just ask M.S. Dhoni and the Indian cricket team. Heroes after winning the cricket World Cup in 2011; vilified after overseas losses to England and Australia in 2012.
When Sania Mirza burst on to the tennis scene in 2005, she captured the imagination of the Indian public like no other Indian sportswoman had ever before. Sania was a breath of fresh air in our sporting landscape – young, glamorous, rising in a high-profile global sport and not afraid to speak her mind. The fact that she was Muslim only added to the narrative. With every forehand winner she unleashed and every rung in the rankings she climbed, the nation’s dreams for her got bigger, the expectations of her mounted higher.
The adulation, though, came at a price and with a bunch of controversies. Sania was targeted by Muslim clerics for wearing short skirts; her support for safe sex turned her into an “influence that was corrupting the youth” and she was even accused of being disrespectful towards the Indian flag. And when her results did not match our expectations, like one of those tennis-obsessed parents, we turned against our own. The pressure got so high that in 2008, Sania announced that she would not play any WTA events at home.
Even while her success in singles continued to fluctuate (2005 year-end ranking 31, 2006 – 66, 2007 – 32, 2008 – 99, 2009 – 58, 2010 – 166), Sania continued to be a polarizing figure in India – young kids all over the country looked up to her while others lamented about her wasted opportunity to become a top player even as many others criticized her for being in the media spotlight and at parties.
Then in 2010 came what many saw as the ultimate betrayal. Sania decided to marry Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik. What everyone saw was that Sania was marrying someone from a country with whom India had fought several wars against and who we are still embroiled in a long-standing border dispute with; one that is unlikely to ever come to a peaceful end. The fact that he did not have the cleanest record on the pitch or off it didn’t help either. What no one saw was that Sania was just another young girl who found in Shoaib a suitable life partner, for better or for worse. Sania was even accused of being unpatriotic for her choice of life partner.
At the same time, Sania was taking another break from the game due to another wrist injury. By the end of the 2010, she had fallen to number 166 in the singles rankings. By the time she embarked on yet another comeback in early 2011, Sania was seen as a has-been. The “Is Sania finished?” headlines were commonplace. But the Hyderabadi proved her critics wrong. She climbed more than 100 spots in 2011 to reach the top 65 in singles and achieved even more success in doubles where she reached the finals of the French Open and the semi-finals of Wimbledon in 2011, partnering with Russian Elena Vesnina.
Just when it looked like Sania was here to stay, came another obstacle – in the form of a knee injury which required surgery last September. Four months away from the courts has taken its toll on her match-fitness and her ranking. Every loss in singles these days is accompanied by sniggers and calls for her to focus on doubles.
All said and done, Sania remains one of India’s top medal contenders at the Olympic Games in London later this year. While she may have to depend on a wild card to play the singles event, Sania’s top 10 doubles ranking (she needs to maintain that until June this year) will earn her automatic entry into the women’s doubles. But with the lack of a suitable doubles partner among the women and the rocky menage-a-trois that has enveloped the Indian men, Sania and India’s best chances for a tennis medal are in the mixed doubles, where she could partner with Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi or Rohan Bopanna depending on the All India Tennis Association’s opaque selection policy.
A medal in London will go a long way in redeeming her in the eyes of those who think she needs redemption. Anything short of that will only provide her detractors another reason to throw more brickbats at her. For the rest, a medal would only be another feather in the cap for the Indian.