Sania Mirza had announced her retirement at last year's Australian Open; the 2022 season was to be her farewell. Had things gone to plan, she would have been watching this Australian Open from the sidelines.
Instead, she will be fighting for the trophy in the mixed doubles final on Friday. Her last few weeks in the sport will see her in a Grand Slam final - 18 years after she first made her Major debut at this same tournament - after she and Rohan Bopanna put together a fairytale run in Melbourne.
Sania, as she has at every difficult moment in her life and career, wants to do things her way.
When a painful elbow injury forced her to call off her season early in August last year, she decided to postpone her retirement so she could bow out on her own terms, not off the court.
This famed tenacity - which helped her deal with fatwas as a teenager, scrutiny on her family life and a successful comeback after becoming a mother - means Sania now has a shot at a seventh Grand Slam title.
After the win, she was noticeably emotional, admitting that she was close to crying for probably the first time on a court. The Indian support in the crowd - including their families - cheered them on as they took a small victory lap with their children joining them on the court.
In a fitting farewell, @MirzaSania's last dance will take place on the grandest stage!
She and @rohanbopanna ���� have qualified for the Mixed Doubles Final!@wwos • @espn • @eurosport • @wowowtennis • #AusOpen • #AO2023 pic.twitter.com/qHGNOvWMoC
- #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 25, 2023
It was also a full circle moment as she had won her first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in 2009, winning the title with compatriot Mahesh Bhupathi. And here she was, in her final Grand Slam with her first-ever mixed doubles partner. "It's my last Slam and it's so special to play with Rohan. He was my first mixed doubles partner when I was 14 and today I'm 36 and he is 42 and we are still playing, we have a solid relationship," Sania said after the match.
How she reached the final
In the semifinal on Wednesday, Sania's grit was once again on display as the all-Indian pair beat third seeds Desirae Krawczyk and Neal Skupski 7-6(5), 6-7(5), 10-6 in an hour and 52 minutes.
Krawczyk and Skupski were the first seeded pair they faced in this tournament after two straight-set wins and a walkover in the quarters. This was also the first Super Tiebreak they played, after squandering momentum and a couple of match points in the second set.
But the way they bounced back - from Bopanna's firepower on groundstrokes to Sania regrouping to find her touch - was another reminder of why at 36 and 42 these two remain India's top tennis players in doubles.
The fact that both sets went to the tiebreaker is a good indication of how close the match was. There were no breaks of serve in the first set and the Indians clinched it before breaking to start the second with a 2-0 lead. Then began a series of breaks which ended with Sania's serve being broken while serving for the match, with two match points coming and going.
The Super Tiebreak (first to 10 points) was just as topsy-turvy as the Indian duo raced to a 5-1 lead before being pegged back to 8-6 after a couple of unforced errors and returns from the third seeds. But it was Sania who found the way out. A stunning backhand winner earned three match points and sealed the contest with a drive volley that Krawczyk could not return.
Classic Saina - finding a way to win by making the best of what she has.
Before the start of the season's first Grand Slam, Sania posted a note on social media saying she is looking forward to having a slightly quieter life with her son.
Life update :) pic.twitter.com/bZhM89GXga
- Sania Mirza (@MirzaSania) January 13, 2023
Exactly 12 days later, she is back in a Grand Slam final with her performance anything but quiet as it shouts out - this is India's greatest woman tennis player and she will go out with a bang. Just like how Sania Mirza entered Indian sports' consciousness and stayed at the top for close to two decades.
No matter how the final goes, Sania Mirza bidding farewell to Grand Slams on the Rod Laver Arena will be a reminder of her blazing will and tenacity.