8 women in sports who are changing the game


8 women in sports who are changing the game

This league of under-30 sportspersons is scoring big

By Vatsala Chhibber & Mamta Mody  October 28th, 2015

Sania Mirza, 28
Tennis

Earlier this year, Sania Mirza handed the final version of her untitled autobiography to her publisher, only to make major edits soon after. “Every time I think I’m finished, there are new chapters to add,” she says. “I now have to write about everything that happened after January.” These extra pages might carry the most thrilling parts of a book that’s crowded with landmark victories — where Mirza, alongside childhood hero Martina Hingis, lands on top of global rankings in April and gets her hands on the Wimbledon Ladies' Doubles Trophy in July. She does it all over again two months later at the US Open. No Indian woman has ever come close.

The Hyderabad native, who took up the sport at the age of six, has another, equally rare achievement to her credit. She made sports cool. And she made sports cool for women. In the first year that Mirza began to compete professionally, she bagged the Wimbledon Girls’ Doubles Title (2003), and the world took notice of this bright talent. They were surprised to find a self-assured teenager who didn’t speak in clichés, didn’t control the eye-rolling and was happy to discuss fashion. She also looked great on posters. “They weren’t ready for someone strong, opinionated and sarcastic,” says Mirza. “But I was only 17, I had to grow up very fast.” Her successes were quick, significant and marked by superlatives — first Indian woman to win a Grand Slam title, India’s most successful female tennis player, first female South Asian to be appointed a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador.

But in 2013, a serious wrist injury cost Mirza her singles career. “I couldn’t comb my hair, lift my phone. I felt handicapped; playing tennis was far beyond my thoughts. I only hoped to live normally again. I was in depression,” she says. Bowing out of singles, Mirza insisted, was the only way to prolong her career. But her exit felt too sudden and murmurs of “gave up too easy” were all around. “People don’t know much about me, or what I do. Or why I stopped playing singles. I don’t know how many people know I have an advanced form of arthritis. I cannot go around saying I’m hurting, or justifying every decision to people sitting behind keyboards.”

Blocking out reproval — to do with her religion, her marriage, even her Dubsmashes (the worst ever, if you believe social media) — is something Mirza has had to practise as fiercely as her sport. Just last year, she was seen breaking into an angry cry after her selection as Telangana’s brand ambassador fuelled a political uproar — her marriage to Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik, the dissenters said, didn’t make her Indian any more. This year, fellow sportspeople grumbled about her Khel Ratna win, calling it an unfit, merely popular choice. “It’s never going to be over,” Mirza says with a smile. She’s finally learnt to cope with her celebrity, despite having no predecessor to take cues from.

And there’s no immediate successor in sight, either — India’s highest ranking female singles player, Ankita Raina, stands at number 239. Mirza’s top singles ranking was 27. While she’s optimistic for a bright sporting future for Indian girls (she set up the Sania Mirza Tennis Academy in Hyderabad in 2013), Mirza knows there’s some ground to cover still. “In this part of the world [people] think sports is for boys,” she says. “And we’re so caught up with the idea of a man thinking of us as equals. But do you? Empowerment comes from within.” — Vatsala Chhibber

Saina Nehwal, 25
Badminton

Last year, one of India’s most promising young sportswomen almost quit the game. A string of bad performances and injuries had left Nehwal doubting her abilities. She had been raring to raise the bar after her bronze win at the 2012 London Olympics (the first Indian to win one for badminton), but now that the stakes were higher, she felt every blow on the court more keenly. “People started criticising me, no one was appreciative of my previous work and that really hurt,” says Nehwal. So she hit reset and drew upon the resilience that had allowed her to forge ahead despite little support from fans and sponsors in the early years. She moved from Hyderabad to Bengaluru and began training under a new coach. “I feel it is my duty to be the best every time,” she says with endearing earnestness. The reboot paid off: Late last year, she became the first Indian woman to win the elite and very competitive China Open Super Series. And in August this year, she clinched silver at the World Championship, cementing her World No 1 position in women’s singles. — Mamta Mody

Dipika Pallikal, 24
Squash

When the country’s top squash player, Dipika Pallikal, decided to miss the fourth consecutive National Championship in July, her silent crusade finally created enough noise about the gap in prize money between male and female players. Pallikal, who made her name as the first Indian woman to bag a spot in the world top 20 says, “People are taking women athletes more seriously than before, but even though we train and play just as hard as the men, we don’t get the same respect — that’s what I’m fighting for.” Not the type to spend her time moping about, she has gone on to win laurels at several international tournaments; Pallikal and Joshna Chinappa won gold in the doubles at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. She was also the youngest player to receive the Padma Shri award, at 22, last year. Next challenge: breaking into the world top 10. — MM

Dutee Chand, 19
Sprinting

The Orissa native is a national champion in the 100 and 200 metres sprint, but Chand’s greatest victory has been outside the track. At the 2014 Commonwealth Games, soon after her double-gold win at the Asian Junior Athletics Championship, a test conducted by the Athletics Federation of India found above-normal testosterone levels in her body. Chand was instantly pulled out of the competition. “I was really hurt. I didn’t even know I had this condition [hyperandrogenism],” says Chand, who was presented two options going forward. “I could undergo surgery or fight a case. I didn’t want to tamper with my body. I felt fine physically, why should I have to?” One of the few athletes to rail against corrective surgeries, Chand’s blinkers-on battle brought a landmark victory for hyperandrogenic athletes. The Court of Arbitration ruled in favour of Chand and gave the International Association of Athletics Federations two years to scientifically back their argument of unfair advantage. “I have never felt different from other women,” says Chand who’s now training for a spot at the 2016 Olympics. “I hope other athletes will be spared the trauma and humiliation that I have undergone.” — VC

Dipa Karmakar, 22
Gymnastics

At the 2014 Commonwealth Games, Dipa Karmakar rolled out a successful Produnova vault (a handspring, twin somersaults and a front landing) — the toughest possible move in women’s gymnastics that carries such great risk of spinal injury, paralysis and even death that there have been remonstrations for its ban. Karmakar, who bagged a bronze for the feat, is one of only four women to complete the move in the history of the sport, and the first Indian woman (and second national) to win a CWG medal for gymnastics. “There is high risk involved, but I’ve never felt scared, really... except when I’m trying a move for the first time,” says Agartala-born Karmakar. “I’ve had lots of injuries. I’ve broken an arm, performed with swollen ankles, that’s part of the game.” The Arjuna awardee is happy that gymnastics is no longer regarded as an international circus act. “That used to be the perception, but it’s changing now,” she says. After picking up another bronze at the Asian Championships this August, Karmakar is now aiming for a podium finish at the World Gymnastics Championships in Glasgow later this month, to qualify for the Rio Olympics. 

Update: Karmakar just made history by becoming the first Indian woman gymnast to qualify for the Olympic games. — VC

Aditi Chauhan, 22
Football

Chauhan tried her hand at various sports — and picked up a black belt in karate along the way — before committing to football. “I was just 15 when I started playing for the U-19 state team,” says the Delhi native. By 19, Chauhan had already found a spot on the national team as goalkeeper, and was part of the winning squad at the 2012 South Asian Football Federation Woman's Championship in Sri Lanka. Even though the national women’s football squad ranks higher than the men (56 to 155, respectively), Chauhan believes the women's team scores lower in support and coverage. “That was the idea behind my decision to do sports management [from Loughborough University, UK],” she says.  “After I retire, I want to work for the development of women’s football in India.” The decision proved pivotal when Chauhan was signed on by West Ham United Ladies, making her the first Indian woman and third national — after Mohammed Salim and Baichung Bhutia — to be seeded by an English club. “Initially, it was a bit difficult for me to adjust. The standard of football is much better here,” she confesses, but plans to bring a stronger game back home someday. “I’d love to play for India again. It would be a big honour and a great responsibility.” — VC

Heena Sidhu, 26
Air pistol shooting

She mentions her achievements so casually that you may get the impression that being an ace pistol shooter is no big deal. The former world number one (2014) took up air pistol shooting while studying for her medical entrance exam at 17. “The sport has some physics and math involved and once I got that, it wasn’t really tough for me.” It also helped that her father, a national-level shooter, set up a rudimentary range in the backyard of their home in Patiala. “I got lucky because this way I avoided all the politics, bullying and the pressure to compete with state champions.” The Arjuna awardee found the spotlight early in her career with a silver medal at the Beijing World Cup in 2009, but, four years later, it was the gold win at the Munich World Cup that got her world recognition as the first Indian pistol shooter to achieve the feat. Now that she’s aced the 10-metre events, Sidhu’s practising for the 25-metre and has set her gaze on a spot on the Olympics team. — MM

Pinki Jangra, 25
Boxing

Hisar-born Pinki Jangra assumed the ‘giant killer’ moniker after her surprising victory against boxing legend and Olympic-medal winner Mary Kom at the National Boxing Championship in 2009. She repeated the feat at the 2014 Commonwealth Game trials, knocking Kom out of the competition and clinching a bronze for herself. The only way to victory, Jangra had told herself, was to not think about it. “I was not worried about the outcome, and that’s the only way I was able to beat her. My coach told me if you manage to put up a good fight, that will be a victory too.”  The flyweight boxer, who only took up the sport as a result of accompanying her brother to the ring (he ended up an engineer), has never found her lithe frame a disadvantage. “Till seven or eight years ago, boxing was mainly about power and strength. But now it’s more of a mind game,” says Jangra, who bagged an impressive gold at the international President’s Cup Boxing Tournament in August. “You might be in the best physical shape, but if you’re not prepared for your bout, you won’t win. What I lack in power, I make up in mental strength.”  — VC

Photographs: Bandeep Singh, Living Media India Limited (Saina Nehwal), Kaamna Patel (Sania Mirza, Dipika Pallikal and Heena Sindhu), Taras Taraporvala (Dutee Chand), Nishanth Radhakrishnan (Dipa Karmakar), Keiran Perry (Aditi Chauhan) and Yashasvi Sharma (Pinki Jangra); Styling: Nidhi Jacob (Sania Mirza), Akanksha Kamath (Dipika Pallikal and Heena Sindhu), Meghna Bhalla (Dutee Chand), Arushi Parakh (Dipa Karmakar and Pinki Jangra); Make-up and Hair: Bianca Louzado (make-up for Sania Mirza), Raj Kadam (hair for Sania Mirza), Ambika Devi (Dipika Pallikal), Emraan K (Dutee Chand), Shallu Chandla (Dipa Karmakar and Pinki Jangra), Ashleigh Haines (Aditi Chauhan), Jean-Claude Biguine Salon & Spa (Heena Sidhu); Location Courtesy: Aita Tennis Centre of Excellence, Mumbai (Sania Mirza) and Karnail Singh Stadium, Delhi (Pinki Jangra); Assisted by Devika Wahal (Dipa Karmakar and Pinki Jangra) Art Direction: Reshma Rajiwdekar (Sania Mirza)

This story was originally published in the October 2015 issue of ELLE India 

Sania Mirza, 28
Tennis

Earlier this year, Sania Mirza handed the final version of her untitled autobiography to her publisher, only to make major edits soon after. “Every time I think I’m finished, there are new chapters to add,” she says. “I now have to write about everything that happened after January.” These extra pages might carry the most thrilling parts of a book that’s crowded with landmark victories — where Mirza, alongside childhood hero Martina Hingis, lands on top of global rankings in April and gets her hands on the Wimbledon Ladies' Doubles Trophy in July. She does it all over again two months later at the US Open. No Indian woman has ever come close.

The Hyderabad native, who took up the sport at the age of six, has another, equally rare achievement to her credit. She made sports cool. And she made sports cool for women. In the first year that Mirza began to compete professionally, she bagged the Wimbledon Girls’ Doubles Title (2003), and the world took notice of this bright talent. They were surprised to find a self-assured teenager who didn’t speak in clichés, didn’t control the eye-rolling and was happy to discuss fashion. She also looked great on posters. “They weren’t ready for someone strong, opinionated and sarcastic,” says Mirza. “But I was only 17, I had to grow up very fast.” Her successes were quick, significant and marked by superlatives — first Indian woman to win a Grand Slam title, India’s most successful female tennis player, first female South Asian to be appointed a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador.

But in 2013, a serious wrist injury cost Mirza her singles career. “I couldn’t comb my hair, lift my phone. I felt handicapped; playing tennis was far beyond my thoughts. I only hoped to live normally again. I was in depression,” she says. Bowing out of singles, Mirza insisted, was the only way to prolong her career. But her exit felt too sudden and murmurs of “gave up too easy” were all around. “People don’t know much about me, or what I do. Or why I stopped playing singles. I don’t know how many people know I have an advanced form of arthritis. I cannot go around saying I’m hurting, or justifying every decision to people sitting behind keyboards.”

Blocking out reproval — to do with her religion, her marriage, even her Dubsmashes (the worst ever, if you believe social media) — is something Mirza has had to practise as fiercely as her sport. Just last year, she was seen breaking into an angry cry after her selection as Telangana’s brand ambassador fuelled a political uproar — her marriage to Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik, the dissenters said, didn’t make her Indian any more. This year, fellow sportspeople grumbled about her Khel Ratna win, calling it an unfit, merely popular choice. “It’s never going to be over,” Mirza says with a smile. She’s finally learnt to cope with her celebrity, despite having no predecessor to take cues from.

And there’s no immediate successor in sight, either — India’s highest ranking female singles player, Ankita Raina, stands at number 239. Mirza’s top singles ranking was 27. While she’s optimistic for a bright sporting future for Indian girls (she set up the Sania Mirza Tennis Academy in Hyderabad in 2013), Mirza knows there’s some ground to cover still. “In this part of the world [people] think sports is for boys,” she says. “And we’re so caught up with the idea of a man thinking of us as equals. But do you? Empowerment comes from within.” — Vatsala Chhibber

Saina Nehwal, 25
Badminton

Last year, one of India’s most promising young sportswomen almost quit the game. A string of bad performances and injuries had left Nehwal doubting her abilities. She had been raring to raise the bar after her bronze win at the 2012 London Olympics (the first Indian to win one for badminton), but now that the stakes were higher, she felt every blow on the court more keenly. “People started criticising me, no one was appreciative of my previous work and that really hurt,” says Nehwal. So she hit reset and drew upon the resilience that had allowed her to forge ahead despite little support from fans and sponsors in the early years. She moved from Hyderabad to Bengaluru and began training under a new coach. “I feel it is my duty to be the best every time,” she says with endearing earnestness. The reboot paid off: Late last year, she became the first Indian woman to win the elite and very competitive China Open Super Series. And in August this year, she clinched silver at the World Championship, cementing her World No 1 position in women’s singles. — Mamta Mody

Dipika Pallikal, 24
Squash

When the country’s top squash player, Dipika Pallikal, decided to miss the fourth consecutive National Championship in July, her silent crusade finally created enough noise about the gap in prize money between male and female players. Pallikal, who made her name as the first Indian woman to bag a spot in the world top 20 says, “People are taking women athletes more seriously than before, but even though we train and play just as hard as the men, we don’t get the same respect — that’s what I’m fighting for.” Not the type to spend her time moping about, she has gone on to win laurels at several international tournaments; Pallikal and Joshna Chinappa won gold in the doubles at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. She was also the youngest player to receive the Padma Shri award, at 22, last year. Next challenge: breaking into the world top 10. — MM

Dutee Chand, 19
Sprinting

The Orissa native is a national champion in the 100 and 200 metres sprint, but Chand’s greatest victory has been outside the track. At the 2014 Commonwealth Games, soon after her double-gold win at the Asian Junior Athletics Championship, a test conducted by the Athletics Federation of India found above-normal testosterone levels in her body. Chand was instantly pulled out of the competition. “I was really hurt. I didn’t even know I had this condition [hyperandrogenism],” says Chand, who was presented two options going forward. “I could undergo surgery or fight a case. I didn’t want to tamper with my body. I felt fine physically, why should I have to?” One of the few athletes to rail against corrective surgeries, Chand’s blinkers-on battle brought a landmark victory for hyperandrogenic athletes. The Court of Arbitration ruled in favour of Chand and gave the International Association of Athletics Federations two years to scientifically back their argument of unfair advantage. “I have never felt different from other women,” says Chand who’s now training for a spot at the 2016 Olympics. “I hope other athletes will be spared the trauma and humiliation that I have undergone.” — VC

Dipa Karmakar, 22
Gymnastics

At the 2014 Commonwealth Games, Dipa Karmakar rolled out a successful Produnova vault (a handspring, twin somersaults and a front landing) — the toughest possible move in women’s gymnastics that carries such great risk of spinal injury, paralysis and even death that there have been remonstrations for its ban. Karmakar, who bagged a bronze for the feat, is one of only four women to complete the move in the history of the sport, and the first Indian woman (and second national) to win a CWG medal for gymnastics. “There is high risk involved, but I’ve never felt scared, really... except when I’m trying a move for the first time,” says Agartala-born Karmakar. “I’ve had lots of injuries. I’ve broken an arm, performed with swollen ankles, that’s part of the game.” The Arjuna awardee is happy that gymnastics is no longer regarded as an international circus act. “That used to be the perception, but it’s changing now,” she says. After picking up another bronze at the Asian Championships this August, Karmakar is now aiming for a podium finish at the World Gymnastics Championships in Glasgow later this month, to qualify for the Rio Olympics. 

Update: Karmakar just made history by becoming the first Indian woman gymnast to qualify for the Olympic games. — VC

Aditi Chauhan, 22
Football

Chauhan tried her hand at various sports — and picked up a black belt in karate along the way — before committing to football. “I was just 15 when I started playing for the U-19 state team,” says the Delhi native. By 19, Chauhan had already found a spot on the national team as goalkeeper, and was part of the winning squad at the 2012 South Asian Football Federation Woman's Championship in Sri Lanka. Even though the national women’s football squad ranks higher than the men (56 to 155, respectively), Chauhan believes the women's team scores lower in support and coverage. “That was the idea behind my decision to do sports management [from Loughborough University, UK],” she says.  “After I retire, I want to work for the development of women’s football in India.” The decision proved pivotal when Chauhan was signed on by West Ham United Ladies, making her the first Indian woman and third national — after Mohammed Salim and Baichung Bhutia — to be seeded by an English club. “Initially, it was a bit difficult for me to adjust. The standard of football is much better here,” she confesses, but plans to bring a stronger game back home someday. “I’d love to play for India again. It would be a big honour and a great responsibility.” — VC

Heena Sidhu, 26
Air pistol shooting

She mentions her achievements so casually that you may get the impression that being an ace pistol shooter is no big deal. The former world number one (2014) took up air pistol shooting while studying for her medical entrance exam at 17. “The sport has some physics and math involved and once I got that, it wasn’t really tough for me.” It also helped that her father, a national-level shooter, set up a rudimentary range in the backyard of their home in Patiala. “I got lucky because this way I avoided all the politics, bullying and the pressure to compete with state champions.” The Arjuna awardee found the spotlight early in her career with a silver medal at the Beijing World Cup in 2009, but, four years later, it was the gold win at the Munich World Cup that got her world recognition as the first Indian pistol shooter to achieve the feat. Now that she’s aced the 10-metre events, Sidhu’s practising for the 25-metre and has set her gaze on a spot on the Olympics team. — MM

Pinki Jangra, 25
Boxing

Hisar-born Pinki Jangra assumed the ‘giant killer’ moniker after her surprising victory against boxing legend and Olympic-medal winner Mary Kom at the National Boxing Championship in 2009. She repeated the feat at the 2014 Commonwealth Game trials, knocking Kom out of the competition and clinching a bronze for herself. The only way to victory, Jangra had told herself, was to not think about it. “I was not worried about the outcome, and that’s the only way I was able to beat her. My coach told me if you manage to put up a good fight, that will be a victory too.”  The flyweight boxer, who only took up the sport as a result of accompanying her brother to the ring (he ended up an engineer), has never found her lithe frame a disadvantage. “Till seven or eight years ago, boxing was mainly about power and strength. But now it’s more of a mind game,” says Jangra, who bagged an impressive gold at the international President’s Cup Boxing Tournament in August. “You might be in the best physical shape, but if you’re not prepared for your bout, you won’t win. What I lack in power, I make up in mental strength.”  — VC

Photographs: Bandeep Singh, Living Media India Limited (Saina Nehwal), Kaamna Patel (Sania Mirza, Dipika Pallikal and Heena Sindhu), Taras Taraporvala (Dutee Chand), Nishanth Radhakrishnan (Dipa Karmakar), Keiran Perry (Aditi Chauhan) and Yashasvi Sharma (Pinki Jangra); Styling: Nidhi Jacob (Sania Mirza), Akanksha Kamath (Dipika Pallikal and Heena Sindhu), Meghna Bhalla (Dutee Chand), Arushi Parakh (Dipa Karmakar and Pinki Jangra); Make-up and Hair: Bianca Louzado (make-up for Sania Mirza), Raj Kadam (hair for Sania Mirza), Ambika Devi (Dipika Pallikal), Emraan K (Dutee Chand), Shallu Chandla (Dipa Karmakar and Pinki Jangra), Ashleigh Haines (Aditi Chauhan), Jean-Claude Biguine Salon & Spa (Heena Sidhu); Location Courtesy: Aita Tennis Centre of Excellence, Mumbai (Sania Mirza) and Karnail Singh Stadium, Delhi (Pinki Jangra); Assisted by Devika Wahal (Dipa Karmakar and Pinki Jangra) Art Direction: Reshma Rajiwdekar (Sania Mirza)

This story was originally published in the October 2015 issue of ELLE India