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I don’t know when my son will be able to see his father again - Sania Mirza

Tennis stars are no different to the general population. The Covid-19 induced lockdown has caused a great deal of anxiety for India’s Sania Mirza. But it isn’t just the unknown nature of the virus or being confined indoors that makes the tennis star uneasy. In her case, it is also the fact that her family is separated: Sania and her child Izhaan in Hyderabad, India, and her husband, cricketer Shoaib Malik, in Sialkot, Pakistan.

Sania, who returned to the tennis court in January after two years, was travelling non-stop for tournaments, escaping the virus along the way, and returned home from the USA just before the lockdown was imposed. Malik was competing in the Pakistan Super League when similar measures were enforced there. “So he got stuck in Pakistan, I got stuck here. That was very difficult to deal with because we have a small child. We don’t know when Izhaan will be able to see his father again. It’s as basic as that,” Sania said. “We are both pretty positive and practical people. He has a mother who is over 65 and by herself, so he needs to be there. So in the end, it worked out best that he was there with her. We hope we are healthy and come out of this on the right side of it.”

It’s one of the many emotions Sania is experiencing simultaneously. Tennis, at the moment, does not occupy prime space in her mind. “I don’t have anxiety problems but a couple of nights ago, I was having anxiety out of nothing. I was lying in bed and thinking of things because there’s so much uncertainty. Having a toddler in the house, you don’t know how to protect yourself, how to protect your child, you have parents who are older. So, you are not really thinking about work or tennis,” she said.

It’s about survival, she adds. The plight of migrant workers, among the most affected during the lockdown, ‘breaks her heart.’ She’s been raising funds and doing zakat (charity), this being the month of Ramzan. But Sania isn’t sure if even that is enough to help those in need. “It’s almost like you feel guilty to be in a privileged position when you see videos of them,” she says.

One Friday morning, Sania saw a picture of a ‘mother carrying a child on her shoulder while dragging a suitcase, and having another child on the suitcase.’ “It’s heart-wrenching. I really do feel for those who go on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis financially. The daily wagers…” she said. “Fortunately, a lot of us are in a privileged position and are able to help. I personally have reacted by trying to help. We raised Rs 3.3 crore, if I am not wrong, in a period of three weeks with a movement called Youth Feed India. But our population is so large that it’s difficult to say what we all are doing is enough.”

Hours after leading India into the Fed Cup playoffs, Sania hopped on a flight to California to play the Indian Wells Masters. However, by the time she reached, the tournament was called off due to the virus. Since then, no competitive event has taken place and the Tokyo Olympics, one of her biggest motivations to return to tennis postmotherhood, were postponed by a year. “It’s very, very tough for the athletes. Imagine (the condition of) runners who were supposed to be peaking this year for the Olympics. A lot of athletes try to peak for the Olympics. For tennis, we have Grand Slams, other tournaments, so many things to look forward to. There are so many sports where they have only one or two things in a year. So, it’s a huge, huge miss,” she said.

Gradually, sports bodies across the world are firming up plans to resume action. On Saturday, live football will return in the form of the German league. However, given the amount of travel involved as well as the fact that players from multiple nations compete in a tournament, Sania said it will be ‘too big a risk’ to restart tennis until the danger subsides, adding that she won’t even open her academy again until she is ‘sure the kids are not at risk’. “The second you travel, you are compromised. The second you sit on a plane, you are compromised. It’s impossible to have a tournament where you’re going to have 500 players from 100 different countries and nobody is going to have the virus. It’s just too big a risk,” she said.

Sport, however, isn’t a priority for her at the moment. Survival, she repeated, is. And reuniting with her family. “We have left it to fate,” she said. “(But) I am really looking forward to being back as a family again and being at the same place. It’s really not been easy staying away from my husband and for Izhaan to stay away from his father. No amount of virtual video calls can do justice to actually meeting in person. I also look forward to a normal world where hugging and shaking hands become normal again, where we don’t think that we might die if we hug someone we love or kill them, you know.”

Meanwhile Purav Raja made Sania Mirza go through five strokes, real racquet in hand, during the popular ‘Chai with Raja’ Instagram show. The 33-year-old Sania sportingly obliged and showed, with her razor-sharp responses to a variety of questions, that she could win any contest, with or without a racquet. Sania pointed out that Jelena Jankovic also had not won a Grand Slam singles title despite being World No. 1, as Purav’s notes had only Dinara Safina’s name. She did get both names. She recalled five players who had trained with her in December and named the IPL captains of the Hyderabad team with ease. She stumped Purav by recalling the names of seven Davis Cup team captains — Leander Paes, S.P. Misra, Vijay Amritraj, Anand Amritraj, Mahesh Bhupathi, Rohit Rajpal and Jaidip Mukerjea. She was candid in saying that a lot of people would get that right.

On another note, Sania said Bollywood was close to her heart. She said that many would be able to connect with the inspiring journeys of people who became superstars. She named Farah Khan as her favourite and added Riteish Deshmukh and Salman Khan to the list. When asked who was more competitive, Paes or Bhupathi, Sania said that both were incredible competitors and it was impossible for her to pick one over the other, as she had won with both. Naming Steffi Graf as her favourite player, Sania said being World No. 1 in doubles was more satisfying than being 27 in singles because “if you are No. 1 in the world in anything, it is special”.

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