Tennis ace Sania Mirza reflects on a life shaped by travel
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
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.”