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Tennis brings new challenges every year, says Sania Mirza

Sania Mirza had a dazzling 2016, winning eight tournaments, including a Grand Slam. In an exclusive interview with TOI the glamourous Hyderabadi talks about the year that was, the tears and treats. She holds forth on finding a balance between the pain of falling short at Rio, the strains of splitting from Martina Hingis and the high of finishing No. 1.

THOUGHTS ON THE 2016 SEASON…

I’ve had a good year. I won eight tournaments, one Slam and made the final of the mixed doubles of the French Open and even though there was a bit of turmoil not just in terms of the Olympics, but also because you split with someone who you’ve had so much success with. It’s a decision you actually have to make. The splitting was not the issue, but going through the process of making that decision. It takes a lot out of you. But all-in-all I’ve had a good year. Not many people win eight tournaments in a career. My partner (mixed-doubles) Ivan (Dodig) says, you have won more tournaments in a year than I have in my career and he’s ranked eight in the world. I’ve been No. 1 all year. Another amazing year, but it has been a tough year.

WHAT DID THE SEASON TEACH YOU ABOUT YOURSELF?

I’ve dealt with a lot of things in my life, from when I was young even. That’s the amazing thing about tennis, every year brings new challenges. When I started the year (2016), I never thought, Martina and I would split, I don’t think she thought so either. But what I learnt about myself is that I adapt well. There were situations I found myself in this year, time and again that I needed to adapt to. That was not just in terms of the partnership (SanTina), but also adapting to a certain scenario that was created outside of tennis. Adjusting to new people, new situations. That’s what I learnt. Ten years ago, that would’ve been a lot more difficult. I’m 29, almost 30 now, mentally I’m a lot stronger. But that takes a toll on you, especially when you come to the end of the year. You adapt so much week after week after week… Like last year, I wasn’t feeling so tired at the end of the year, even though I probably played the same amount of matches.

SHOULD SANTINA HAVE STALLED THE SPLIT TILL THE END OF THE YEAR?

Like some relationships, partnerships to run its course. That’s the nature of sport. People thought the split was all dramatic or we weren’t speaking, but we share meals on the Tour, have lunch together. It was always very cordial. It was a professional decision. I think everyone who plays sport, is clear that they want to win. If you’re not able to win then you have to find a solution and that’s what we did. We weren’t able to win as much as we were winning and we were both not happy with it. I don’t think either of us regrets the decision. I stayed No.1, I won three tournaments out of the five I played after the split. I can speak for myself and I’m ok. I’ve had a very good year regardless of the split.

It is important to get along with your partner, you don’t necessarily have to be soulmates to have a meal together but it shouldn’t be uncomfortable either. That’s why with Martina and me, we were able to have lunch together or talk to each other, because the decision was professional.

YOU’RE NOT ONE TO GIVE IN TO TEARS EASILY…

The lowest point of my year was the match we lost for the bronze medal and the match before that (the semi-finals, playing for a place in the final). I cried like I haven’t cried in a long time. I cried after the match, I cried even when I was doing press. I walked off the court and I wasn’t able to control myself. People sometimes think because we deal with wins and losses on a daily basis that we get over them a lot easier.
There are some losses that sting more than the others. As tennis players, we don’t have the luxury of taking six months to recover from a loss. I’m usually ok the next morning (after a bad loss), that’s how I am as a person. There’s not a lot you can do about it. We lost on Saturday (in Rio) and I didn’t play a match until Wednesday in Cincinnati (if I am not wrong) because it was raining. Even when I played my first match in Cincinnati, it (the loss) was bothering me. That’s a very long time, at least for me it was.

People saw Novak (Djokovic) crying when he walked off the court at the Olympics. As tennis players, we’re so used to having another chance week after week, that at the Olympics, when the dream crashes there are only three people/teams that are going to win… There are hundreds competing and when the dream crashes, and you realise it won’t happen for another four years and may never happen again. You may never have that chance again… That’s when it gets you. If I lose a match here (on the Tour), it’s not going to change my life. I can tell you that I’ll be ok if I win the next tournament. But at the Olympics you don’t have that option, that’s why you see so much more emotion from us tennis players at the Olympics.
Sometimes there’s so much built up, that tears help in getting it all out. I felt a lot better after crying. I came to Cincinnati and won the tournament straightaway.

IS TOKYO 2020 A POSSIBILITY?

The only thing that crossed my mind at that point was ‘this was it’. I’ve been to two other Olympics and I have lost, but I always knew that I was going to make it to another Olympics. It wouldn’t have stung as much if we had lost in the first round or even early in the tournament. We were so close to winning a medal… It was heartbreaking.

I must not call it the lowest point because we were fourth and finishing fourth is huge. That is the best performance in the Olympics by an Indian pair (in mixed doubles). For me, it’s not ok to be a runner-up. I don’t like consolation prizes, that’s just who I am. No disrespect to anybody, I want to win everything I play. So when I look back it was a good performance, we didn’t come back with a medal, but we almost made it. We had two shots at it, but we didn’t make it. At that point it was difficult to get positives.

Rohan (Bopanna) and I flew out to Cincinnati a couple of hours after we lost. On the bus from the village to the airport, which took an hour and 15 minutes, we might have said two words to each other if at all. There was nothing to say. There’s not a lot you can say to each other at that time even though we were the ones who had gone through that pain together. In that moment, it’s better not to say anything to each other. I switched my phone off because the worst thing is when people message you and say, ‘it’s ok! next time!’. That’s the last thing you want to hear. It’s not ok and there’s no next time.

Prakash Amritraj messaged me when I made the final of Cincinnati, ‘coming back like an absolute champion. That’s what champions do, they bounce back. I didn’t message you the last week because there was nothing I could say that would make you feel better’. I got a few athlete messages like that. Those emotions can only be understood by someone who has won and lost. What it means to be that close yet that far.

The chances of being in Tokyo 2020 are minute. Firstly I don’t think my body will survive. I have issues with my knee, the same knee (left) on which I’ve had surgery, where I have 30 per cent less meniscus. I have torn more of my meniscus, I don’t want to have surgery because I’m able to play still. It’s not that I’m limping around, but I have problems. I have a growth on my right knee, I have no idea what it is. Four years is a long time. Realistically, even if I make it, I’m not going to be at my peak. That’s a fact, as athletes we have to accept that we peak at a certain time. I may still be in a position to compete, but will I be in a position to give myself a chance to win a medal? Probably not.

WHAT ARE YOUR EXPECTATIONS FOR 2017?

At the end of each year, we’re asked what our goals for the new season are. After you become No.1 and win Grand Slams, the goal is to win more Grand Slams. That’s the reason why we are playing, why we put ourselves through the grind, stay away from family and pursue those goals. Do I have a specific goal? No, but it would be great to win a Slam and as many tournaments as I can. I’ve never had ranking goals, singles or doubles. I feel when you win tournaments and do the right things that takes care of itself. That’s not something you can chase, you can only chase winning tournaments.

CHAMPIONING A CAUSE….

Standing up for what I believe is right came naturally to me. The awareness that you have about certain issues comes with experience. It was always in my personality to go with what I thought was right. The reason I continued to play tennis was because I felt I was good at it and nobody had the right to tell me that I shouldn’t be playing. I’m talking about when I was 11-12 years old. So as a 12-year-old for me to stand up and say that I want to be a tennis player in a country that hadn’t produced a top-100 singles player in a long time was standing up as well. It was just that I was standing up for myself. The things that I stood up for, more significant issues, changed as I grew up.

I experienced being treated unfairly on a lot of occasions because maybe I am a woman. The questions that are being asked to me would not be asked to a male athlete or to a male star, but I was being asked those questions which are unfair. Those are experiences that made me want to stand up for these issues more than any other issue. I have always believed in standing up for things that are close to my heart, whether that’s trying to help children or the poor, whatever it is. I’m not vocal about everything I do, but I feel this women’s equality and equal opportunity issue requires me to be vocal because if I’m not vocal, I don’t help the situation.

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