Tennis ace Sania Mirza reflects on a life shaped by travel

Nature

Sports stars don’t come much more impressive than Sania Mirza. The Indian tennis ace has played in Grand Slams across the globe since turning pro in 2003. Since then, she’s made it to the final rounds of all four tournaments as a singles player; and won Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open in doubles. For a full decade, from 2003 until 2013, she was considered India’s finest tennis player by the Women’s Tennis Association; and, with her partner Martina Hingis, was ranked No. 1 in the world in doubles in 2015 and 2016.

Sania’s life off the court has been almost as splendid: she now moonlights as a brand ambassador for her home state of Telangana in India, and was named one of Time magazine’s ‘100 most influential people in the world’ in 2016. She also boasts a whopping 7.5 million followers on Instagram (and if that’s not a modern-day mark of success, we don’t know what is).

As an athlete, travel has always been an integral – and inescapable – part of Sania’s life. She’s played tennis for as long as she can remember and since the age of eight, has travelled throughout and beyond India for games and tournaments – to far flung destinations in Europe, America and Australia – for around 35 weeks a year. That kind of schedule would be tough for the most seasoned sports pro, let alone a child. But Sania speaks fondly of the time – and of the unexpected benefits that a life constantly on the move presented to her impressionable psyche.

“Travel was the best education that I got,” she says. “I wasn't able to go to school much. A lot of my education happened when I travelled, whether that was about history, culture, or places.

“When I was young, we were travelling across India by train a lot,” she continues. “We used to go from Hyderabad to Delhi, and it would take close to 48 hours to get there. All the cities you discovered on the way – as a 12-year-old, the geography that I wasn’t learning in a classroom, is what I was learning while I was actually travelling.”

“Travel was the best education that I got. A lot of my education happened when I travelled, whether that was about history, culture, or places.” - Sania

Discovering a world on one’s doorstep

For an outsider, it can be hard to comprehend the sprawling scope and scale of India – an enormous country unmatched in cultural, social and geographic idiosyncrasies. Sania hails from the city of Hyderabad – itself abundant in Nawab history and flecked with elaborate palaces and forts – but the nature of her calling gave her the opportunity to explore the further reaches of the subcontinent.

It was a formative experience. “Delhi and Agra – with the Taj Mahal – and Jaipur were the places that really fascinated me the most,” she says. The awareness gained from the nuanced dialects, food and local culture that occurred over even short distances had a lifelong impact on the young Sania.

“Every 50 kilometres, people live differently – and that's the most amazing and diverse thing about India,” she explains. “That’s why I always feel that travel is essential to having a broader mindset and expands your horizons on what's going on in the world. Not trying to see your life through a keyhole where it's just your state, city, or place. When you travel, you get to learn about so many cultures, so many people. How do people eat? What do they do? Where do they go? Everybody is different.”

Travels with the family

Almost all of Sania’s travel was (and still is) undertaken with her family. “My parents and I have had a really good relationship over the years, even though we've 'had' to travel with each other for work,” she says. “In the initial years of travelling together, we used to go on these car rides from Hyderabad to Mumbai, Mumbai to Thiruvananthapuram – a 30+ hour drive. And we would do that as a family. I think that really kept us close over the years. We were able to discover things about each other.”

Since then, tennis has taken Sania to Grand Slams across the globe. Her favourite? New York. “Not just because I've had my best results in singles, doubles and mixed over there,” she says, “but also because we’re a big foodie family – and there's no better place for that than New York.”

The pandemic begins

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Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic was a hard stop; an unprecedented up-ending to routine that couldn’t help but fundamentally change Sania’s day-to-day life, both personally and professionally. The job of a tennis player revolves around travel; constantly on the move, never settled, often taking two flights a week. The prospect of travelling 30-35 weeks a year even in ‘normal’ times is challenging, she states. Dealing with lockdowns and the new minutiae of crossing borders – endless tests, passenger forms, travel and border restrictions that can change on a dime – has made it significantly more so.

“There's a different rule for every country and as we are an individual sport, we have to find out all those rules by ourselves rather than being taken care of by an organisation,” Sania explains. “So you have to be really aware. It's challenging – and then you throw in a two-and-a-half-year-old toddler in there with all these issues!” Ah yes – Sania is a relatively new mother, too. Just something else to make her status as an international tennis ace even more impressive.

Looking to the future

But with the global vaccination push continuing at speed, and the virus waning in some parts of the world, Sania’s thoughts have returned to that which we’ve all been missing the most: a holiday.

“I’m a beach person, rather than a mountain person,” she laughs, when pressed on her hypothetical post-COVID-19 dream trip. “If I'm trying to think of my favourite destination, I’ll have to sound clichéd and say that the Maldives is probably the best place on this side of the world.”

Given everything that’s happened – not least the fact we’ve all been indoors for the best part of 18 months – doesn’t she feel like she should push the boat out a tad? Get the adrenaline flowing with something a little more... heart-racing?

She’s adamantly – indeed, admirably – averse. “I know that the first thing most people say when they’re asked what wild travel dream they have is skydiving or bungee jumping,” she says with casual resignation. “But I'm afraid of heights! I don't know how I can fly so much.” She has a confession, though: “I've not discovered 'in the sea' activities, so that's something I'd love to do.” A pause. “I've got my own fears about that, but I think it would be so much fun.”



Indian tennis pro Sania Mirza looks to a world of travel after COVID-19


“I think that the pandemic has made us realise a lot of things about ourselves. It made us grateful for everything we have. Many people have realised how privileged they were to get on a plane and go wherever they want, whenever they feel like.”

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Sania should know. The Indian tennis star – a former Grand Slam singles player and doubles world champion – first left Hyderabad to play tennis at the age of eight and has lived an itinerant life since she was 12, when she jumped head-first onto both the domestic and international circuits. COVID-19, of course, has changed all that.

A life stood still

Life under the virus has been a debilitating phenomenon for everyone, and especially for someone like Sania. For a professional athlete, a life on the move comes as standard; stasis means there’s no tennis being played. Still, with the international vaccine push going well and COVID-19 in slow retreat across the world, things are starting to look up. And Sania – focused on returning to her regular cadence , not least at this year’s Wimbledon tournament and the recent Olympics in Japan – is feeling bullish.

“Honestly? I’m a little over COVID-19,” she says. “My whole family and I had it in January. Now, the fact of the matter is that we've done everything that needs to be done; we've been vaccinated and we've got high antibodies. We have to focus our energies on winning and performing, and not think about the other stuff. It might be challenging, but that's what we have to do as athletes.”

Passing the mantle

On top of being a tennis pro, she’s also a working mother. Her son, Izhaan Mirza Malik, was born in late 2018 – though juggling parenthood with an athletic career hasn’t hugely shifted her attitude to travel. “But everything,” she adds, “is a bit more challenging with a toddler!” Crucially, she’s keen to see travel – both domestically across India as well as internationally – return to give her son the voyages of discovery she was so lucky to undertake in her own youth.

There isn’t one particular place she’d like him to see, she says. (“And If you asked him his dream destination right now, he'd probably say Disneyland!”). Rather, Sania’s desire for Izhaan is to experience a panoply of cultures, as a way of broadening his understanding of the world, as she feels her travels did for her. Living in such tumultuous times has only driven this home further.

“I would love my son to see and understand all the cultures of India and the wider world because travel has shaped me into the person that I am – being able to adapt to and understand different cultures and different people,” she says, emphatically.

“I think that living through the pandemic has made this more profound – 100 percent,” she continues. “It’s very important to travel to understand cultures and religions, because there's so much to discover in the world. I must have visited 50 or 60 countries in my lifetime. It's something that today I realise the importance of, even more so after the pandemic.”

“I would love my son to see and understand all the cultures of India and the wider world.” - Sania

A change in philosophy

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It’s also caused her to reassess her own perspective, and to try and appreciate how much easier we all had it just 18 months ago. And yet, Sania remains optimistic. “I hope our attitudes to international adventure can be the same one day; that we can come back to a world where we don't have to plan so much.”

Before, Sania explains, she would finish a tournament and take the first flight out to get back home – something that’s now impossible because of PCR tests. Results must be waited on; forms must be filled in. “There are many things that are different because of the pandemic,” she adds, “and I really hope it comes back to ‘I want to fly somewhere. If I have a visa I can go.’”

Just where that might be, Sania isn’t sure. Yet. The life of a tennis player is dictated almost wholly by tournaments – from Grand Slams in London, Paris, New York and Melbourne, to more infrequent highlights like this year’s Tokyo Olympics. Real freedom – or rather, the chance to explore the world unencumbered by competition – will come when Sania lays down her racquet. Not that she’s bored of the amazing places she’s obliged to visit for her sport, of course.

“When I stop playing tennis, I would love to travel as a tourist,” she says. “To go to the same places that I've been and live it differently. It's pretty routine for us when we're playing tennis and at tournaments, but it would be nice to be able to do that freely.”

Discovering the world anew

Sania hails from the city of Hyderabad, in the state of Telangana. She’s pretty well-travelled in India – life on the road for 35 weeks a year from the age of 12 will do that. But it’s a huge country: possessed of an intensely varied, technicolour world of cultures, foods, dialects and histories, and somewhere she’d love to explore further.

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“I’ve been to all the bigger cities but it would be really nice to discover the interiors of India a little bit more because the culture is so different,” she explains. “Places like Jaisalmer, and small cities and towns in Rajasthan – they’re full of culture, beauty and colour.”

Still, her imminent sights are set a little further. For Sania, the opening up of the world – whenever that happens – will mean ticking off bucket-list locations away from her home country. “My dream destination,” she states, “is Bora Bora in French Polynesia – I’d love to go there because it's so far from us. But I would love to go to Monaco, too. I hear it's beautiful.”

Fundamentally, she has always seen travel as a way of broadening horizons – both literally and figuratively. Immersing oneself in the weird and wonderful corners of the world is an enriching privilege never to be taken for granted again. Profound stuff – but does she have any advice to see it through?

“Wherever you’re going, it's very important to try and live the life of that country. Do what they do, eat what they eat, try and see the places. That's the only way you can experience the true sense of a country.” It’s very heartfelt.

“Oh!” she adds. “And travel light. That's something that I'm guilty of not doing. Ask my father and he’s quick to say: ‘We broke our backs because of you!’”



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