In 2010, when Indian tennis player Sania Mirza married Shoaib Malik – the swashbuckling Pakistani batsman who had made a career out of tormenting Indian bowlers – neither of their careers were blazing away. Both of them seemed to have already peaked at a younger age, and were now seeking stability after striving for excellence in countries that are unforgiving to mediocrity. Even their press statements and post-tournament words felt like they were already living out the twilight of their premature careers, and that they were happy to achieve everything they had already accomplished. They say that the most difficult marriages in the world are between two top-level athletes or two high-profile celebrities. In a way, they may have unwittingly reduced their levels in order to negotiate a new personal phase in their lives – something that was alien to them up until then, something that perhaps excited them far more than keeping their eyes on the ball in fields and courts across the world.
Not too long later, Sania Mirza
retired from Singles tennis
because of a recurring wrist injury, after carrying the burden of being India’s top player
for more than a decade. She said she would then have to concentrate on Doubles tennis
– an area far more populated and decorated by Indian male tennis players
and their accomplishments. In between battling perverse media accusations about it being a Pakistani ploy to steal away the shine from India’s greatest tennis hope, she started rummaging through experienced partners on the women’s circuit. By now, she was routinely appearing on social media networks as a spelling mistake, when admirers were actually referring to shuttler Saina Nehwal
– who had taken over as India’s most iconic woman athlete
At around the same time, her husband was dropped from the test team, and then the ODI team. He didn’t play another test for 5 years, and wasn’t even chosen in the squads for the 2011 and 2015 ODI Cricket World Cups. This was a major blow to an athlete of his stature – because Shoaib Malik was still young, eager and had much to offer. Form and luck had deserted him, perhaps for the final time in his brief career. Like his wife, he struggled the maximum in the couple of years immediately following the wedding. As usual, their countrymen were unforgiving and harsh.
In 2014, not magically, Sania Mirza started winning tour titles. She partnered with accomplished doubles’ specialist Cara Black and began to climb up the rankings, routinely reaching the last stages of every tournament. Often, she’d encounter Swiss comeback queen Martina Hingis on the other side of the net, and often, Hingis would come away as the winner. In the season-ending World Tour Finals event, Mirza and Black, in their final tournament as partners, demolished their Chinese opponents for the loss of only one game. This was their biggest victory together, and their last. Black was phasing herself out of the game, which meant that Mirza had to yet again start a new season with a new partner. She partnered her friend Bethanie Mattek Sands in a couple of tournaments, won them, and entered the top-5 in the Doubles rankings for the first time in her career. But she hadn’t quite found a way to be consistent, even losing at the Australian Open in the second round.
And then, she found the one partner that had already given Indians so many reasons to cheer over the last few years. This woman was one of the first Swiss tennis legends in the late 90s, and had already partnered Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi and won Grand Slam titles in Mixed Doubles. She was the original maestro, before Roger Federer came along. Mirza and Hingis won their first tournament together at Indian Wells, and never looked back.
Eight titles later, including two Grand Slams
and the US Open
, they are ranked no. 1
in the world, and are overwhelming favorites in every tournament they enter. They have already reached the 1999 levels of Paes-Bhupathi
, and Hingis
is also winning Mixed Doubles Slam titles on the side for fun. As it turns out, she has won five Grand Slam titles
this year in both formats – the most by a player in 2015. What’s more – even the silly predictable jokes about Yash Chopra’s early Swiss connections and Switzerland’s payback to India have now become things of the past. This Indo-Swiss express holds no prisoners, and have established a dominance that goes far beyond politics, Yashraj and even tennis.
Two months before the pair won their first Slam title at Wimbledon, Shoaib Malik was drafted in to play a weak Zimbabwe team in an ODI home series. He was going to play international cricket for the first time since 2013. And he scored a century – his first in six years. To put things into perspective, he didn’t limit his comeback to one game. Since May, Malik has remained unbeaten in six ODI innings, and has averaged over 100 in the format. His scores have only come against Zimbabwe and a weakened Sri Lankan side, but he has been Pakistan’s most reliable middle order batsman. As a result, he was drafted into the Test side for the first time since 2010, only weeks after Mirza and Hingis won their second consecutive Slam title together in New York, and days after they won their eighth tour title together in China.
Almost on cue, in the first test against England at Abu Dhabi, Malik played an innings that lasted 645 minutes. He finished on 245 – incidentally the first time ever a test player has scored that number – his first double century and only the third highest individual score for a Pakistani test batsman.
The comeback is now complete. And the marriage – of champion minds, spirit, determination, dominance and endurance – has only just begun.