Sania Mirza played her final professional match Tuesday, ending her career at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, a tournament she considered her home event.
"My first memory was playing Svetlana Kuznetsova here, winning that match, the stadium was packed and that was my first time ever playing in those kind of stadiums outside of India," Mirza told reporters. "I’ve had some amazing matches here. I’ve been able to win this tournament in doubles. I’ve played well here in singles, but more than anything, for a long time we didn’t have a tournament back in India and this was the tournament that I looked forward to as a home tournament.
In Photos: Sania Mirza's iconic 20-year-career comes to a close
"I feel a lot of gratitude today. To be able to do this on my own terms, to be able to do it when I'm playing well is great. I'll still be around tennis. It's just not competing."
The 36-year-old Indian leaves a storied legacy and firm imprint on the Hologic WTA Tour. In a country with little history or infrastructure to support women's tennis, Mirza turned pro in 2003. Over the next 20 years, the Hyderabad native would build a historic career in both singles and doubles. In 2005, she became the first Indian woman to win a WTA singles title when she won her hometown tournament, the Hyderabad Open, and was voted WTA Newcomer of the Year.
"I'll never forget about the match I lost to her in Australia the first time I qualified for a Grand Slam in Australia as a professional," former No.1 Victoria Azarenka said. "I think what she has done for India, for the region here, is absolutely remarkable.
"Little girls who didn't really have a role model before now can see what's possible. I think that is priceless. That's going to be her legacy."
Armed with a devastating forehand, Mirza reached a career-high No.27 in singles before transitioning full time to the doubles circuit. She won her first major title at the Australian Open in 2009, capturing the mixed title with Mahesh Bhupathi. She went on to win mixed doubles at the 2012 French Open and 2014 US Open.
But it was her pairing with Martina Hingis in 2015 that unlocked a new level of success for Mirza. As part of the one of the most successful teams of the past decade, Mirza won three straight majors, capturing the titles at 2015 Wimbledon, 2015 US Open and 2016 Australian Open. She became the first Indian woman to hold the No.1 ranking on the WTA Tour in 2015, rising to No.1 on the doubles circuit.
"As little girls, especially young girls who choose to do something that's outside of the box in our part of the world, we are often told we cannot do something rather than we can," Mirza said. "It was no different for me. It's no different for a lot of young girls who choose to do things that are not really what society expects them to do as a young woman.
"I just want to tell them that you have to back yourself and believe in yourself. If you are not your biggest cheerleader, nobody else is ever going to believe in you."
While our coaching staff handle the cricket side of things, we couldn’t think of anyone better to guide our women cricketers about excelling under pressure.— Royal Challengers Bangalore (@RCBTweets) February 15, 2023
Join us in welcoming the mentor of our women's team, a champion athlete and a trailblazer! 🙌
Namaskara, Sania Mirza! 🙏 pic.twitter.com/r1qlsMQGTb
That is the message Mirza will continue to press after her career. She has already been appointed by the Royal Challengers Bangalore, a franchise in the Indian Premier League to mentor the women's cricket team. Mirza says she won't be offering any bowling or batting tips, but hopes to parlay her 20-year experience under the spotlight to help the women build their careers safely and successfully.
"The whole concept of me being there has nothing to do with cricket," Mirza said. "It actually has to do with the mental aspect of things with these younger girls. They've never been in positions where they've had careers, so much money, millions riding on them. Many of them haven't been on TV, haven't done ads, shoots. It's so easy to get distracted from that stuff. It's also very easy to tense up and feel the pressure because there's so much expectation of you.
"It's also really great because it gets me to do something that I want to do. It gets me to do something where I'm able to share my experience in trying to make women's sport better and more accepted, more acknowledged for the future in the subcontinent."
Mirza assured the press that she won't disappear and become a stranger to the sport she loves. But for now, she's looking forward to school runs with her 4-year-old son Izhaan and shoring up her future plans.
"I think tennis has really made me who I am. It's not just in terms of what it made me on the outside but also what it made me on the inside, the person I am. It's taught me so much.
Mirza said she hopes she made aspiring players realize that professional sport can be a career option.
"I think India [has produced] some of our biggest superstars outside of cricket are women, whether it's in badminton, boxing or wrestling. It's the women that have brought more medals in the last couple of Olympics than the men have.
"I think that's what tennis brought to me in the last 20 years that I've given to it. It's also given me back twofold."