London Connection Q&A: Saba Aziz
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How did you accommodate your sporting career with your academic life?
Honestly, it has not been easy. From lugging around my heavy textbooks, to tournaments across the country, to getting some reading done in the car on my way to training, I have gotten accustomed to balancing tennis and academics. I feel I have, to some extent, mastered the art of time management and organisation over the years, which meant that I have had to forgo many things in the process, an active social life, per se. But it has all been worthwhile in the end.
Why did you choose to study with the University of London International Programmes?
Registering with the University of London International Programmes was possibly one of the best career decisions I have made. Apart from getting a Bachelors degree from a recognised university, self-study gave me the flexibility I needed to pursue my passion for tennis.
"Playing competitive tennis, representing your country and going through those high pressure points, in a way, made sitting down and preparing for an exam seem relatively easy"
Do you think the drive you have as a sportswoman helped you academically?
Most definitely, yes. Playing competitive tennis, representing your country and going through those high pressure points, in a way, made sitting down and preparing for an exam seem relatively easy. If anything, tennis has made me mentally stronger and a much more confident person, able to cope with pressure situations with greater ease. I was able to maintain a healthy balance throughout and the breaks offered through tennis eventually enabled me to stay relaxed and perform well academically.
Tell us about a typical day for you when you are on a tennis tour?
Well, if I am travelling for a tournament and have a match, then my day would usually revolve around that. For instance, if I have an afternoon match, I would get up at around 9am, have a big breakfast with cereal, milk, eggs, toast and tea. I like to be well prepared before a match, so I would prepare all my energy drinks, get water, energy bars, bananas, spare shirts and organise these in my bag. I would make sure I have my lunch at least two hours before the match. I usually arrive at the match venue an hour before the actual match time, to give myself enough time to warm-up and have a light hit. Once the match is over, I like to have a nice elaborate stretch in the gym followed by a shower and a lavish dinner. If I don’t have a match, I would mostly have two practise sessions of an hour each, one in the morning, and the other in the afternoon with some footwork and agility drills in the evening.
"I have been lucky to have good, supportive people around me, like my parents and my coach who have helped me get through some tough times"
You are Pakistan’s number one tennis player? How much dedication does it take to get there?
It might sound a bit clichéd, but it has been a long road with many ups and downs. I have gradually made my way up and realised my true potential. I have been lucky to have good, supportive people around me, like my parents and my coach who have helped me get through some tough times. I have had to work really hard, not just physically but in terms of staying strong-willed and motivated throughout. It always helps when you have a set target which keeps pushing you through the limits. Like they say, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Will you be going to the games this summer?
As much as I would have loved for that to happen, I am afraid no – at least not this year. In order for a tennis player to qualify for the Olympics, you have to be at least inside the top 100 in the world if not better. Unfortunately, with the limited resources, I have not been able to travel and compete for professional tournaments on a regular basis for my ranking to be that high. Who knows, things might get better by the time the next Olympics are here! But as they say, that would be another dream, another target!
“There is no better feeling for an athlete than to be able to play for one’s country and wear the national colours”
What does it feel like to represent your country?
There is no better feeling for an athlete than to be able to play for one’s country and wear the national colours. Tennis is an individual sport, but when you represent your nation and play as part of the Pakistan team, there is a whole new dimension to it. I remember when I first made the Federation Cup team in 2011 and played against Indonesia in Thailand. While there were obvious nerves, as the whole nation’s expectations are resting on you, the feeling of pride and honour of being an ambassador is priceless and cannot really be expressed in words.
Do you have any pre-game rituals that you’d care to share?
Usually before the start of an important match, I like to zone myself out and listen to my iPod. Music always relaxes me and gets me going.
Who has been your biggest inspiration?
My all-time favourite tennis player is Belgium’s Justine Henin. She has always been my source of inspiration through her sheer will, grit, determination and competitiveness. Despite going through all the hardships and troubles in her life, she fought her way out of adversity to become a Grand Slam champion and world number one. Her story really inspires me and gives me strength.
What do you feel has been your greatest achievement to date?
I am extremely grateful for all that I have achieved in life, be it in tennis or academics. So it is difficult for me to single one out. However, being ranked as the top women’s tennis player of the country is a testament to all the hard work and dedication over the years for which I take pride.
You were listed in Newsweek’s Pakistan’s 100 women who matter/make a difference? What did that mean to you?
I was extremely proud and honoured to be part of that list. At the same time, to see my name in the illustrious company of these other remarkable women – Oscar winners, philanthropists, and activists to name a few – also made me wonder whether I really deserved to be there!
Do you think that opportunities for women in Pakistan are more diverse than, say, in your mother’s generation?
I would like to think so, yes. I feel women and girls of my generation are more driven, career-oriented and courageous as compared to women of previous generations. This is perhaps a result of the greater opportunities provided to them. It is encouraging to see women actively taking part in a wide variety of fields and contributing meaningfully.
What does it mean to you to be a graduate of the University of London International Programmes?
It is a matter of great pride for me to be a graduate of such a prestigious institution. Even though I was not lucky enough to attend the university in person, getting a degree from the University of London through the International Programmes has been, nonetheless, a wonderful and rewarding experience.
"I want to be able to pursue my tennis dream and play on the professional circuit"
What are your hopes for the future?
I want to be able to pursue my tennis dream and play on the professional circuit. Alongside that, I hope to be doing some tennis commentary for sports channels and writing for newspapers and magazines as a sports journalist.
What is the one thing or place you would like to see in your lifetime?
Being the tennis fanatic that I am, I would love to go and watch the Wimbledon Championships once in my lifetime and sit on the Centre Court to see my favourite player, Andy Roddick, play live. That would just be a dream come true for me!