IMRAN MIRZA was in a chatty mood on the evening of July 4, 1993. He and his family were spending the summer vacation with his uncle in Bengaluru. Watching Steffi Graf demolish Jana Novotna in straight sets to clinch her fifth Wimbledon title, he indulgently patted his six-year-old daughter Sania and said, “Hey, what if someday she (Sania) becomes a professional tennis player and gets to play at the Wimbledon on Centre Court?” This was greeted with a chuckle from his uncle. Not surprising, considering that in the 1990s, the idea of pursuing a sport like tennis sounded pretty outrageous.
But Imran’s wife Nasima’s face lit up at her husband’s polite, but intensely honest query. Nasima had no clue about the game. Nevertheless, she knew how important it was to her husband. She retorted, “If Sania has a chance of playing at the Wimbledon, I won’t leave a stone unturned to make it happen.” In hindsight, her response proved to be prophetic. That’s because barely a dozen years later, Imran and Nasima’s daughter would go on to make her Wimbledon debut. Sania Mirza’s autobiography Ace Against Odds is racy and is laced with several such fascinating snippets that prove to be the book’s core strength. It chronicles Mirza’s journey from the Nizam Club in Hyderabad, her primary initiation into the sport, and ends with the 29-year-old’s ascent to the top as the world’s number one doubles player.
Despite the episodic nature of the narrative, Mirza’s story follows two distinct threads. First, her initiation into the game of tennis and, second, her brush with stardom and the non-stop media glare. Behind her struggles to achieve perfection in the game were her supportive parents, ready to go to any extreme to see their daughter fulfill her potential. The story begins from the time the Mirzas had just returned to Hyderabad from the US. Keen that their daughter get a headstart in the sport, the Mirzas approached the famous Nizam Club. At first, Mirza was refused entry for being ‘too young’ for her age. A flabbergasted Nasima fought tooth and nail with the coach, determined not to take ‘no’ for an answer. “What do you mean by too young… she is my daughter and I want her to learn tennis. If you don’t want to teach her, I will take her elsewhere,” she argued. Taken aback by Nasima’s conviction, the coach took her daughter under his wings.
Barely six years later, Mirza got her first realistic chance of representing India at the junior level. It was 1999 and the All India Tennis Association had announced that the three best players in the U-14 category would represent India in Jakarta at the World Juniors. For that to happen, Mirza had to play the semis in Guwahati to clinch the spot. However, the journey with her father—from Hyderabad to Guwahati via Kolkata—proved to be “an unforgettable experience”. Being stranded at Kharagpur station due to a bandh and seeing her father get injured drained the 12-year-old emotionally. However, it did little to shift her focus from the job at hand—clinch a spot in the U-14 team. These two episodes illustrate the kind of unflinching support Mirza got from her parents.
The second part of the book talks in depth about her brush with stardom and her uneasy relationship with the media. As she turned pro, she found herself being asked questions about her choice of T-shirts and even her nose ring, rather than about her game. By 2005, Mirza was the talk of the town. Time magazine chose her as one of Asia’s heroes that year. She has no qualms in admitting that the media played a key role in her attaining worldwide fame, but she found it difficult to handle all the attention.
On a personal level, things changed with the entry of Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik in her life. However, when the news of their marriage began doing the rounds, the media painted her as anti-national and hounded her and her family. For two weeks leading to her marriage with Malik, the media parked itself outside the Mirza household, probing everyone who entered or left the household. Mirza, by her own admission, was under house arrest. “I did not see sunlight for about ten days. All the windows, even the small vents in the bathrooms, had to be covered. Even the smallest of peepholes were being used by the media to beam images. Going out to the balcony for a breather was asking for trouble.”
On the court, a spate of injuries had now taken a toll on Mirza’s weary body. By 2012, she had quit the singles format completely. But she found her verve in the doubles format after teaming up with Martina Hingis. Today, the duo has become a tour de force in the women’s doubles format, winning over 40 matches across all surfaces and three consecutive Grand Slam titles.
Co-written by journalist Shivani Gupta and Imran, Ace Against Odds is detailed and follows a no-holds-barred approach. It’s bold and honest in equal measure. The book is also an honest appraisal of the times we live in. However, the book, spread across 40 chapters, follows a simple linear narrative style. This, in the end, proves to be the book’s undoing. It would have been far more attractive had the writers followed a more non-linear approach instead of sticking to the clunky timeline format.
Author is Vishal Menon