‘Ace against Odds’ is your typical sports biography which is hell-bent on putting its subject on a pedestal rather than telling the real story, warts and all
Sandeep Kumar Delhi
In May 2012, a month before the London Olympics, an emotionally drenched but determined Sania Mirza, in a feverish state of mind, wrote a long press release expressing her disappointment over the selection procedure of the All India Tennis Association (AITA). She expressed grave concerns about infighting amongst players over who would partner whom in the Olympics and also targetted the board and committee members for forcing her to partner with Leander Paes in the mixed doubles category at the mega event. It was her clear intention to partner Mahesh Bhupathi, a proven partnership which had won two Grand Slam titles in the past. She received support from the media and much was written about the male chauvinistic mindset endemic to Indian sports. The Paes-Mirza duo could not go beyond the quarter-finals and all hopes of a medal in tennis were laughed off in the midst of a public fall-out.
Fast forward to the 2016 Rio Olympics. This time, Mirza had the liberty to throw her weight around and she therefore informed AITA well in advance about her desire to partner Bopanna, pre-empting any chance of being partnered with Paes. The duo started brilliantly, playing some good matches against top-seed teams, but was unable to secure a podium finish this time as well.
So the truth of the matter remains the same. Paes is still the only Indian tennis player to win an Olympic medal.
Skimming through the pages of Ace against Odds, the autobiography of India’s first legendary female tennis star, one finds a list of press releases and excerpts from newspapers and websites written in her support on every controversy she has had to deal with in her career. In other words, she has not taken a stand or expressed a view of her own on any of these controversies, which have voyaged along with her throughout her career. The autobiography, penned with the help of her father, Imran Mirza, unsurprisingly chronicles her journey to stardom, accompanied by all the difficulties and hardships she has had to face in making her dream possible.
The timing of the autobiography was more of a surprise. To write an autobiography at 29, one should ideally have collected the accolades of a Lionel Messi or a Cristiano Ronaldo, who almost need a museum of their own for the awards they win every year.
Born and brought up in an upper middle-class family of sports enthusiasts, her introduction to outdoor games came naturally. Apart from the family migrating to the United States in her early days, where her mother was left heartbroken because she couldn’t enrol Sania into a tennis class at $40 an hour, she didn’t have to struggle through your typical struggling sportsperson’s adversity-laden hard-knock life to get into the scene. A year later, the Mirzas were back in Hyderabad and Sania was taking tennis, swimming and skating classes. She was a quick learner and at an early age she had completely mesmerised Srikkanth, her first coach, who hailed her for having tremendous ball sense and timing.
At the age of eight, she played her maiden state-level junior tournament. She lost in the second round but went on to receive the Most Talented Junior award. By 17, she had already made a commendable impact. She had won the 2003 Wimbledon girls’ doubles title, partnering Alisa Kleybanova, three straight ITF tiles, the first in Hyderabad and the other two in Manila. She got a chance to partner Paes, then India’s number one player, at the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, where the pair won bronze. Mirza picked up four golds at the 2003 Afro-Asian games in Hyderabad. She also had the privilege of rubbing shoulders with the likes of the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati on the practice courts at Wimbledon. By then, Martina Hingis had already been inducted into the Hall of Fame and, going by her early feats, everyone in India actually believed that the country could produce a Grand Slam women’s singles player in Mirza.
Mirza cherishes her meeting with Hingis and also rates her four-match rivalry with the Swiss star as one of the proudest and most satisfying phases of her career. The genuine friendship between the two helped them create history as the duo went on to win three Grand Slams together, and also held a winning streak of 41 consecutive matches at one point.
The dream remains, but the hopes are no more.
The course of Sania’s journey from her initial days to full-fledged PR-managed celebrity status has been under the watchful eyes of her father. Imran cherishes the journey as a destiny that simply had to be fulfilled, whereas Sania gives all the credit to him. As she recalls, he had a very keen eye. He had never been a professional sportsperson himself but his breeding was that of one. He was a club-level tennis player who was perhaps more proficient in cricket, but had followed tennis for decades with a clinical mind and a passion that defied logic. It was he who made her work on her forehand technique, making her change grip until it was similar to the semi-western grip, along with the unique flick of the wrist that gave her the phenomenal power that has made her forehand so dangerous and shocked her opponents into temporary submission.
Sania’s professional singles ranking improved by leaps and bounds, as she made her entry into the top 100 in 2005. She won her first WTA singles title by defeating Aloyna Bondarenko of Ukraine in front of a home crowd. She went on to defeat the reigning US Open Champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova, at the Dubai Duty Free Championship with a scoreline of 6-4, 6-2, after trailing the first set 0-4. The match against Kuznetsova has a separate chapter in the book, titled “The Best Match of My Life”. Everything just fell into place. She had become the poster girl of Indian tennis; an overnight star who also had a glamorous face along with the style statement intact in her sports and public attire. Mirza cherishes her meeting with Hingis and also rates her four-match rivalry with the Swiss star as one of the proudest and most satisfying phases of her career. The genuine friendship between the two helped them create history as the duo went on to win three Grand Slams together, and also held a winning streak of 41 consecutive matches at one point.
Ace against Odds holds the reader’s interest only in the initial pages, which describe her early life and contain some surprises. Her success in reaching the top level and breaking into the top 30 was quite an achievement. But when the pressure to make it to the top 10 became too much, she began to crack. Much of the book consists of victories against players who are largely unknown in both the singles and doubles circuits. Players tend to play in as many WTA events as they can throughout the year to improve their rankings and Mirza was no different; she was at her very best against the low-ranked players but continued to struggle against the top-ranked bets, which was one of the prime reasons she announced her retirement from singles in 2012.
The Indian contribution to lawn tennis doubles has been an immense one. Paes, Bhupathi and Mirza have been Grand Slam winners in men’s and women’s doubles and mixed doubles. The book reminisces about almost all her successful wins with her doubles partners, from Bhupathi to Bruno Soares, Horia Tecau, Ivan Dodig, Liezel Huber, Alicia Molik, Martha Domachowska…the list is a long and unexciting one.
Mirza mentions that “Life as a successful tennis player was never a bed of roses for me.” Ace against Odds highlights the major controversies that unsettled and traumatised her. Her life has not been a mystery for the Indian media, fans and critics. Her regular appearances on comedy television shows, where her love story with Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik was portrayed more like a Bollywood movie than anything else, failed to mask the series of controversies linked to the episode. As mentioned earlier, the autobiography fails to take a stand on this and relies on the support given by the media. The book has mentions of the editorials written by Vir Sanghvi, Sanjay Jha, Barkha Dutt, and Rohit Brijnath who time and again put out positive articles as supportive gestures to help her become more focused in playing for the country.
Overall, the book features no stories that will inspire readers or give them goosebumps, which is disappointing for an autobiography, but perhaps for those who are so inclined the achievements and trophies listed will provide the necessary fuel for self-belief and determination. This reader was not so inclined.