Change and fame don’t faze Sania Mirza, India’s tennis star and doubles extraordinaire

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After ending a successful partnership with Martina Hingis, Mirza hasn’t skipped a beat, winning titles in Cincinnati and New Haven with new doubles partners. (AP)

NEW YORK—Last month, when news broke of Sania Mirza’s and Martina Hingisabrupt split, it shocked even them. 

Dubbed “Santina,” the pair had enjoyed an incredible 15 months on the court, winning 14 doubles titles—including three Grand Slams—and putting together a 41-match winning streak. But as incredible it all was, that only made their next challenges harder to conquer.

“I think we both have so much expectations from ourselves with the results that we had,” Mirza said at the U.S. Open, her first major without Hingis since the 2015 Australian Open. “We weren’t able to fulfill those results, which was the reason that we split. We both felt the same way, that we would be able to have better results with other people.

“Obviously, it was the right choice.”

After a discussion in Montreal, their last tournament together, and night’s sleep to let it settle in, the most dominant doubles team in the world was in an “open relationship,” free to try out new partners in the middle of the U.S. hard-court season. (Hingis and Mirza will be back together to defend their WTA Finals title in Singapore, which they have already qualified for.)

It took one tournament for them to reunite—as opponents, in the Cincinnati final. Hingis ended up contacting CoCo Vandeweghe, while Mirza looked to tour veteran Barbora Strycova. Mirza and Strycova won the championship match, 7-5, 6-4.

“I’m not going to lie and say it was like any regular match, no it wasn’t,” Mirza said of facing Hingis. “We shared a lot of things together and it was a little difficult, I think for both of us not just for me. The thing is once that first time is over, I think it’s fine and it doesn’t matter anymore.”

Both new teams are into the U.S. Open quarterfinals, and Strycova and Mirza—who will face Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic on Tuesday—have yet to lose a set.

“It was a sudden decision for both [Martina and I],” Mirza said. “Out of the blue we had to look for someone, which was kind of a shock to our systems.

“I thought that our games would be able to compliment each other, and I’m glad that I was right. I’m glad that [Barbora] said yes.”

At 29 years old, Mirza is the top-ranked doubles player on the planet and India’s greatest female tennis player. She has won 39 doubles titles and has more than four million Twitter followers. A hoard of fans watches her at every match she plays. She’s even won awards as an actress.

“You just hope and try to be the best that you can be,” Mirza said. “Fame is not something that I really chased. I never thought that I would be as famous as I am.

“Everybody wants to be famous; people who say they don’t, I think they’re lying.”

Mirza’s fame and adoration is deeply rooted in India, where she’s one of the most high-profile athletes in the country, but the fans flock to her in the United States as well.  

“I’ve always had a very large fan base in America,” Mirza said. “And, also, more in New York because there are so many Indians, especially on weekends and Labor Day weekend, there’s so many people that come out and support.”

With all of the doubles titles Mirza has been collecting, it’s easy to forget she was once a top-level singles player, reaching as high as No. 27 in the world in 2007 before focusing exclusively on doubles in 2013.

“I came out and wanted to be a top-level singles player, which I was for eight years,” Mirza said. “But then my body gave, so I had to make a choice.”

Throughout her tennis career, Mirza been one of the few players on tour that has remains close to her roots, training in Hyderbad (at the Sania Mirza Tennis Academy) and working with her father, Imran.

“He’s sort of the super coach so to say,” Mirza said. “I have had many coaches come and go, but my dad is someone that has been a constant in my life, which is great because not a lot of athletes are able to say that about their parents.”

Reaching No. 1 after winning Charleston with Hingis last year was a dream come true for Mirza, but it’s been far from a smooth ride at the top.  

“It sounds cliché, but it is a lot harder to get to the top than stay there,” Mirza said. “Even though getting there is hard enough, staying there is very hard. Every time you go and play, everyone is gunning for you. They have no pressure.

“You are expected to win every match that you play.”

Mirza won’t win every time she plays, but she consistently wins with every partner she plays with. A week after winning in Cincinnati, Mirza teamed up with Monica Niculescu in New Haven and took home that title, too. It’s the sign of a truly great doubles player—and of someone who’s looking at the next challenge.

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