"I never thought I'd be able to play in front of my child in a Grand Slam final, so it's truly special for me."
Sania Mirza's final Grand Slam match ended with the runner-up plate but this line from her emotional post-match speech signifies the magnitude of her journey, and her achievement today, despite the loss.
Sania and Rohan Bopanna - still a doubles pair 22 years after they first partnered at the National Championship in India - went down in the mixed doubles final at the Australian Open 6-7(2), 2-6 to the Brazilians Luisa Stefani and Rafael Mataos.
It was a one-sided final for the most part, as the Indians struggled to convert their chances and counter their opponents' defence. But the story is not just of the loss, it's also about celebrating how Sania Mirza reiterated how she is a fighter till the end.
At 36 years of age, playing well beyond her original retirement plan in 2022 after yet another injury setback, she somehow gave herself a chance for more silverware on tennis' biggest stage. This time with her four-year-old son watching, even joining her on court after her last win.
Her previous Grand Slam final was back in 2017, also the mixed doubles at the Australian Open, which she lost. Her son was born in 2018 and, despite a fairly successful comeback after giving birth, the pandemic disruption and a number of injuries, she never reached another final.
And yet, when the unseeded, all-Indian pair reached the final beating the third seeds it felt like no surprise, and the loss to a younger pair feels like a disappointment.
It truly puts Sania's tennis career in perspective. Even when she lost the final, she showed once again why she is India's greatest woman tennis player. That we had the expectation of a fairytale farewell is also down to all the times she has bounced back, on and off court to prove detractors wrong.
It was an emotional final, perhaps the significance of the moment weighing a bit too heavily on the Indians at times as a string of nervy errors showed.
Sania, who said she is not one to cry in public, was visibly emotional after. "If I cry, these are happy tears. That's just a disclaimer," she said on court.
"I'm still going to play a couple of more tournaments but my journey of my professional career started in Melbourne. It started in 2005 when I played Serena Williams in the third round as an 18-year-old and that was, scarily enough, 18 years ago. I have had the privilege to come back here again and again, win some tournaments here and play some great finals amongst you all. Rod Laver Arena has really been special in my life and I couldn't think of a better arena to finish my career at in a Grand Slam," she added.
The Australian Open has indeed been a happy hunting ground for her. She made her Grand Slam debut here and was seeded in the singles main draw for the first time - a massive achievement for an Indian player in singles.
She also played her first Major final (mixed doubles 2008), and won her first Grand Slam (mixed doubles 2009, both with Mahesh Bhupathi) here.
It feels like a full circle, yet it isn't; Sania has been so much more than her sporting success. One cannot talk about her plethora of tennis achievements - she owns almost every milestone in Indian women's tennis - without mentioning the off-field barriers she had to overcome.
Sania's fearlessness kept her unfazed on court when chaos surrounded her. And she had her share of scrutiny, perhaps more than a regular Indian sportswoman, due to her religion, life partner and residence. Yet she kept at it, and brought India its most glorious tennis memories in recent times when the sport has found few silver linings.
Sania Mirza steps away from Slams with SIX Majors 🏆
Played 👏 pic.twitter.com/cCrWmWxVxb
- ESPN India (@ESPNIndia) January 27, 2023
The numbers we know - six Grand Slams, singles rank as high as No 27, the doubles No 1 for a total of 91 weeks. But to truly celebrate Sania Mirza is to acknowledge her achievements both on and off court. The teen who fought off fatwas, the 35-year-old who couldn't lift a water bottle without pain last October due to an elbow injury that ended her planned farewell season, the mother who travelled with her toddler to tournaments. For her last dance, she pushed herself back in shape to retire on court, on her terms. The fighter who pushed boundaries and changed the way Indian tennis and sportswomen are seen.
There are a couple of tournaments still left before her swansong next month in Dubai. Till then, let's continue to enjoy the Sania Mirza forehands and forthrightness that made her stand out like no other.