How Sania Mirza Is Taking Indian Tennis In A Fresh Direction

AP Photo/Kin Cheung

Sania Mirza, the No. 1 doubles player in the world, will be looking for her first Grand Slam women's doubles title starting next week on the pristine grass courts of Wimbledon.

After opening on Australia's hard courts and then moving to the red clay of Roland Garros, the Grand Slam season now moves to Wimbledon's grass courts. Fortunately there is one type of surface Grand Slam players never see.

Cow poop.

Seriously. A tennis court made of cow manure. It's a tennis surface Sania Mirza, the No. 1 doubles player in the world, knows all too well after spending hours on it during her childhood in Hyderabad, India.

"It was stinky, like this room,'' Mirza said with a laugh during an interview in a small room last month at the French Open. "They actually don't smell as much. The manure was mixed with clay, so it was hard, really hard. I don't know if they even have them anymore, but those were the only courts we had. We didn't have hard courts until 2000 in Hyderabad, so to play in a hard-court tournament, I had to actually go to Bombay and practice.

"It was pretty bad.''

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Sania Mirza is 31-9 this year in women's doubles and has won four titles.

Mirza, 28, became the first woman from India to reach a top spot in the WTA rankings in April after she and Martina Hingis won the Family Circle Cup title. That's a pretty impressive accomplishment for a woman from a country where tennis is not a big sport and where there aren't a ton of women at the top level in many sports. Her play has helped increase the popularity of tennis and female participation in India.

"For a girl to pick up a tennis racket [when I was young] was unheard of," she said. "I never really had a role model in my life. I'm glad they have someone they can look up to and say, 'Well, if she's in it, then I can, too.' I think it makes it a lot easier.

"It's a lot more fun for kids, girls especially, to pick up a tennis racket now and believe it can be a profession. That's very good, because our culture is a little different on that side of the world. It's great that sport is becoming a career option.''

Mirza rose as high as No. 27 in the singles rankings back in 2007 before a wrist injury stalled her progress. She gave up singles in 2012 to focus on doubles. She has won three mixed doubles Grand Slams -- at the 2009 Australian Open, 2012 French Open and the 2014 US Open -- but she is still searching for her first women's doubles Slam. In all, Mirza has won 26 WTA Tour doubles titles and one singles title. Her best showing in women's doubles at a Grand Slam was in 2011, when she and Elena Vesnina made it to the French Open final, losing to Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka.

Mirza and Hingis joined forces this year, and they won their first three tournaments -- at Indian Wells, Miami and Charleston -- but lost at the French Open in the quarterfinals to Lucie Safarova and Mirza's former partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who went on to win the title. Mirza and Hingis are expected to be the top seeds next week at Wimbledon.

"A Grand Slam is not just about tennis. It's also about nerves a lot of the time,'' Mirza said. "It's something we look forward to four times a year and it's something not many people win. You have to go out there and play your best tennis, but you also have to [keep your nerve].

"It always comes down to how you really treat that match and how you get into that zone. And who handles the nerves better that day and who comes out playing better.''

We'll see how she handles the nerves at Wimbledon, as well as the grass. But the All England Club surface will definitely be better than the cow manure of Hyderabad.

Mirza says that while cow manure courts may be a thing of the past -- Hyderabad has even hosted WTA tournaments and Mirza has an academy there -- tennis in India still has a ways to go to improve. And she hopes it will, because the game has played a crucial role in her life.

"For me, tennis teaches you how to deal with losses on a daily basis,'' she said. "You lose a match, you have to come out and forget about it. Usually in life, when you have certain kind of losses -- whatever kind, in business or whatever -- it sometimes takes weeks to get over it. People go into depression and don't come out of it. In tennis, we have to snap out of it. And if we don't, then we lose the next match, too. We have an option and it makes us mentally very strong -- to come out and look at the positives.

"For me, tennis has taught me there is a next time -- as long you want there to be a next time.''

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