Since the beginning of her professional career in 2003, India’s Sania Mirza has been a role model for many in her country and abroad. Her numerous achievements, which include being the first Indian woman to win a WTA title (in her hometown of Hyderabad, no less) and becoming one of the highest paid athletes in the country, have broken normative boundaries and inspired many young girls.
After this season, however, Mirza’s power to influence is even larger. She started in doubles at number eleven with partner Hsieh Su-Wei and won the Apia International Sydney with Bethanie Mattek-Sands. The 29-year-old truly hit her stride when she joined forces with Swiss star Martina Hingis, a pairing that held special significance for Mirza.
By claiming the number one doubles ranking alongside the legendary Hingis, Mirza defied the naysayers from her hometown of Hyderabad who once criticized her focus on sport. These skeptics told her parents she would never be like Martina Hingis, but now, after a season in which the duo won nine titles, including Wimbledon, the US Open, and the WTA Finals, and earned a still-unbroken 22-match winning streak, the skeptics are eating their words.
Controversy is something that has plagued Mirza since she was a young girl playing on courts of cow manure in India. From facing criticism from fellow Muslims for wearing tennis skirts on tour to battling backlash regarding her marriage to Pakistani cricket player Shoaib Malik, she has beaten every obstacle to come back stronger in the public eye.
People are rallying behind Mirza in droves. Indian president Pranab Mukherjee presented her with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award, the highest honor granted to a sports professional in India. Moreover, she is the 30th most popular player on wtatennis.com and she has 3.2 million followers on Twitter, 1.3 million more than Maria Sharapova.
Not only is Sania Mirza a hot topic and a breakthrough player in women’s tennis this year, but she is already using this recognition to help empower aspiring young female players in her home country. As documented in a segment with CNN’s Open Court, she founded the Sania Mirza Tennis Academy in Hyderabad, which thus far has the support of Martina Navratilova and Indian men’s players Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes. Mirza arrived on the world stage in dramatic fashion in 2015, and her popularity is only continuing to rise.