Sania Mirza: India's trailblazer proves doubters wrong

    Story highlights

    • From humble beginnings, Sania Mirza turned into a tennis star
    • She grew up playing on cow manure in India
    • Mirza and Martina Hingis are the best team in women's doubles

    (CNN)Given one particular taunt Sania Mirza endured in her formative tennis years, one could make the argument that the Indian came full circle when she achieved the No. 1 doubles ranking and claimed the title at the year-end championships alongside Martina Hingis in early November.

    Growing up in a country where the importance of education is drummed home to children at a young age -- and opportunities are limited for females in sports -- onlookers wondered why Mirza wasn't fully focused on studying. They certainly weren't afraid to let their feelings be known to both the player and her parents, Imran and Naseema.
      India's tennis superstar
      India's tennis superstar

        JUST WATCHED

        India's tennis superstar

      MUST WATCH

      India's tennis superstar 04:36
      One jibe just happened to include Hingis, a former singles No. 1 who won five grand slam singles titles prior to quitting the game, returning and now specializing in doubles.
      "People came up and said, 'Aren't you wasting your money, don't you think she should become a doctor, don't you think you should put all this money in educating her?'" Mirza, who celebrated her 29th birthday on Sunday, told CNN's Open Court.
      "'And who do you think she will be -- Martina Hingis?'" Mirza continued, the tone of the question put to her parents tinged with sarcasm rather than politeness.
      "That's (what) we always got. Who knew I would be achieving these things with Martina at my side."
      Hingis grooms future champs
      Hingis grooms future champs

        JUST WATCHED

        Hingis grooms future champs

      MUST WATCH

      Hingis grooms future champs 04:38
      Sania Mirza tackles tennis obstacles
      Sania Mirza tackles tennis obstacles

        JUST WATCHED

        Sania Mirza tackles tennis obstacles

      MUST WATCH

      Sania Mirza tackles tennis obstacles 03:22
      When Mirza and the 35-year-old Hingis defeated Spaniards Garbine Muguruza and Carla Suarez Navarro in Singapore, it ensured the Indian-Swiss duo ended 2015 with a 22-match winning streak, having last tasted defeat in August in Cincinnati.
      The impeccable court and grand surroundings in Singapore were a complete contrast to where Mirza, a native of Hyderabad in southern India, honed her game.
      Hard courts, clay and grass quickly spring to mind when naming surfaces in tennis, but Mirza struck tennis balls as a youngster on ... cow manure. Poverty remains high in India -- population of more than one billion -- and its sports infrastructure is sporadic at best.
      No wonder, reflecting on her path to tennis stardom, she called herself a "freak accident."
      As a child, Mirza dreamed of playing on the lush green lawns of Wimbledon, despite not having any prominent female tennis players to look up to. Again she was knocked back.
      "When I used to say, 'One day I want to play Wimbledon,' it was treated as a joke because it hadn't happened before," said Mirza.
      "Sport always teaches you that no matter how many odds are against you, you can come through them. My life is a perfect example ... of what it means to come out of the odds. When I started to play tennis, not many people believed that sport could be a profession for a girl from Hyderabad."
      But the girl from Hyderabad had a monstrous forehand and it wasn't long before Mirza made a mark on the women's professional tour.
      In 2005 she became the first Indian woman to win a WTA title when she triumphed in her hometown. Suddenly, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, who dominated the tennis landscape in India through a partnership that produced three grand slam titles, had competition in gaining the Indian public's attention.
      Injuries might have forced Mirza to abandon her promising singles career, but undeterred she has excelled in the doubles, becoming the first Indian woman to reach No. 1 in April.
      Mirza opened her women's doubles account at majors by capturing Wimbledon with Hingis, and in September the pair didn't drop a set at the U.S. Open.
      "Lots of people (say to me) all the time, 'You're the first woman to do this, you're the first Indian to do this -- man or woman,'" said Mirza.
      "That's not something I consciously think of every time I'm stepping on the court but I do know at the back of my head that I have played a bit of a part and I do feel privileged to say, and I am proud to say, that I have been part of a change.
      "I think what's very special is what the common people think about it, the public. If you look at it in perspective, it seems pretty small, winning a tennis match, in life.
      "At the end of the day, though, it's amazing because it unites everyone together and for me to give this back to the country has been very special."
      She also gives back through her academy in Hyderabad, a place where children have the opportunities Mirza didn't.
      But if you think her accolades have made Mirza, a Muslim, immune to criticism, you'd be wrong.
      Plenty of criticism came in 2005 for wearing a skirt on court -- which is routine for female players -- but that paled in comparison to the condemnation she received in 2010 for marrying former Pakistan cricket captain Shoaib Malik. Relations have long been tense between neighbors India and Pakistan.
      "I've had a lot of controversies for a lot of different reasons," Mirza says. "The fact is I've come through it all, it's been a good learning experience. It's made me the person who I am today and it's made me a strong and very mature person."
      Mirza is now embraced by the Indian public like never before, with the achievements of the last year certainly helping. She has received congratulatory messages from India's prime minister and president.
      Mirza has more than three million followers on Twitter -- over a million more than that of Maria Sharapova, perennially named the world's richest female athlete. Her official fan page on Facebook boasts nearly 10 million likes, though the Russian star leads her on this platform, with over 15 million.
      Hingis has also noticed a spike in her own social media numbers since combining with Mirza.
      "My Facebook fan page has risen to over 700,000 followers," Hingis told Open Court. "I was at like 300-400,000, when we started playing.
      "All of a sudden I was like at half a million and now I've added 200,000 more, whereas she has like nine million followers. Slowly I'm trying to catch up. Every time we post a photo together it gets like 50,000 likes.
      "You see how many fans not only in India but also outside the country really enjoy to watch her."
      Mirza and Hingis will attempt to win a third consecutive grand slam title at January's Australian Open, and Bhupathi -- a winner of two mixed doubles grand slam titles with Mirza -- is convinced more major trophies will come.
      Bhupathi, Mirza's former manager, called her an "inspiration."
      "She has really worked hard over the last three years," Bhupathi told reporters in India last week. "It is not about just this year. She has performed consistently. She is putting herself in a position to win matches."
      And, with Hingis, winning those matches.