HYDERABAD, India — When Sania Mirza walked off the tennis court at the China Open in 2017 with a knee injury, she didn’t imagine it would be more than two years before she would find her way back.
Last October - almost exactly a year after her last match - Mirza and husband Shoaib Malik, a former cricket star, welcomed their first son Izhaan to the world. But the trailblazing Grand Slam champion and former World No.1 knew she still had more tennis left in her.
Determined to continue inspiring women in India — and around the world — to dream bigger, Mirza is ready for her second act, joining a surge of WTA mothers on tour that includes Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Tatjana Maria and more.
“I think that there are so many amazing athletes out there who are mothers and who are coming back. And why not, right?” Mirza told wtatennis.com in a phone interview. “I mean, I know that being a mother or a father is a great privilege, but also being a mother is also physically pretty taxing, because your body goes through a lot to have the baby.
“I think it might be tougher, but I think if guys can come back to playing after becoming a father, why shouldn’t mothers? And I think that it’s pretty amazing, it’s really inspiring to see so many amazing athletes who are mothers today.”
In Izhaan, who is now 13 months old and waiting on his visa to travel with mom to Australia, Mirza said she’s learned the selfless love that comes hand in hand with maternal instinct - as well as a lot of patience.
“I want everything for my baby and more than I want for anyone else in the world, including myself,” Mirza said, a smile clearly audible in her voice. “I guess that is maternal instinct, so a lot changes. I mean, us tennis players are so used to thinking about ourselves.
“I think he’s taught me patience. I mean generally I was not a very patient person, and now you just have all this patience in life to listen to words 500 times a day,” she said, laughing.
“For example, he calls me ‘amma’ and so he says ‘amma!’ like 500 times a day. And it sounds great! It sounds amazing. Every time he says it, it’s like he’s saying it for the first time.”
Mirza started training again shortly after Izhaan was born, but having delivered via Cesarean section, part of that training involved relearning how to do basic things like sit up in bed and walk short distances. It was her fourth career surgery, so recovery wasn’t a new experience, she explained, but after 22 years of her life dedicated to tennis, the reality of ‘starting from zero’ was daunting.
“I mean, for like three months after I had the C-section I couldn’t just get off the bed,” Mirza said. “Like, I couldn’t just sit up and get out of bed, I had to go sideways and then come up. It was really basic things like that, that are a huge problem. You are starting from zero.”
Although Mirza was ranked inside the Top 20 in doubles in 2017 and lifted the trophy in Brisbane with Bethanie Mattek-Sands before an injury sidelined her after Beijing, it was the perfect timing to take a break. Mirza and husband Malik had already discussed adding to their family (“We were open to it,” she said), and new WTA rules introduced in 2019 provided more support to returning moms on tour.
Looking back at the decision to take a break from the sport, Mirza admits that at the time she wasn’t sure if she would come back - but she always left the door open in case the motivation struck again.
“It was at the back of my head but it was not something that I was hell-bent on,” she explained. “I was like, sure, if I do find the inspiration and motivation again to be able to do it, and if I find the right people who can help me. Raising a child takes an army so it’s impossible for any person to do it by themselves.
“Luckily, I did find that motivation again to get back to playing. Once I decided that, there was no looking back.”
“I thought that I would be able to come back in September, but that didn’t happen,” she added. “And honestly, I could have really pushed myself to do that, but I didn’t want to because my body was not yet feeling great.”
Back to full, pre-pregnancy fitness, Mirza’s immediate challenge is now trying to figure out the logistics of taking a baby along on a professional tennis tour. It’s something she’s already experienced, although secondhand: her former partner Cara Black also traveled with her son when they played together.
“One of my parents will be always there, probably my mom will travel a bit more with Izhaan being on tour with me,” Mirza said. “Because as you know, it takes an army. It takes an army to be a tennis player, it takes an army to raise a child.”
As India’s longtime top female athlete, Mirza has blazed a trail in women’s tennis that saw her become the first woman from her country to win a Grand Slam trophy and hold the WTA No.1 ranking. She’s also assembled an impressive trophy cabinet of six Slams in doubles and mixed doubles, along with 41 WTA titles in doubles and one in singles.
The 33-year-old says she doesn’t feel pressure to live up to her previous success this time around, in part because so much of what she’s achieved as already exceeded her wildest expectations. Mirza’s second act is purely for her, and she’s eager to prove to herself that she can compete again at the highest level.
“I think I’ll be really, really pleased if I’m able to make this comeback and get back to playing professional tennis again,” Mirza said. “I’m extremely proud of where I am today, even just the fact that I’m able to put myself in a position to be able to compete at the Australian Open or before that. I feel extremely proud to be in this position, and hopefully I’m going to be able to do it.
“Anything that I achieve after this - I mean, I’ve won Grand Slams, I’ve been No.1 in the world, you know, I’ve done many things in my life that I had probably only dreamt of. So if I’m able to achieve anything after this, even if that means winning just one single match, that’s a bonus for me. I will take it and be very proud of myself.”
She added, “I hope that a lot of women at least take some inspiration from so many of the great athletes out there, that having a baby is not the end of the world, it’s the beginning.
“And just to understand that as a woman, you don’t have to sacrifice yourself just because you have a baby. You can still follow your dreams.”
Sania Mirza kicks off her 2020 season in Hobart and the Australian Open, partnering with Nadiia Kichenok in doubles and Rajeev Ram in mixed.