She seems to be on game mode all the time, looking taut and toned. The 23-year- old gritty badminton champ is armed with oodles of talent and tact. From the grimy streets of Haryana to the Olympic ground, her leap could well form the storyboard of a blockbuster. Vrinda Prasad meets Saina Nehwal and discovers a feisty youngster with sports in her blood and on her mind. Saina looks radiant at the JFW shoot at Novotel HICC, Hyderabad, dazzling us with her famous smile that immediately brightens the mood on the sets, on an otherwise gloomy, cloudy day. She has the rare ability to seem glamorous and unassuming at the same time. We are once again amazed to see the same self-assurance she displays on the court, in front of the lens too. The two traits she says she has imbibed from her parents are “their confidence and self-belief”. “My dad always tells me ‘Himmat sekhelo jeetogey (Play with courage and you will win)’. I have always followed this simple mantra,” the champion asserts. She proved that effectively when she went ahead full throttle and won the Olympics Bronze in 2012, apart from becoming the first Indian to win a Super Series tournament in June 2009.
“My parents have made many sacrifices for my successes”
Saina was 9 when she moved to Hyderabad from Haryana. She started learning Karate in 1998 and went up to the brown belt level. After that it started getting tough to sustain with the boys, she says. “That is when one of Dad’s friends suggested I play badminton; I wanted to enrol for the summer camp but I had missed the enrolment deadline and hence was refused admission. Dad’s persistent efforts to convince the camp authorities to take me in bore fruit. I was asked to play a game and my first shot was a smash; my admission into the camp was assured,” she recalls with a smile. Within a month of playing there, she went to Chennai for the under 10 tournament and fought till the quarterfinals. Sania reflects that the journey has not been easy. Saina and her dad would wake up at 4:30 in the morning for practice sessions at LB Stadium, miles away from where she lived. At 3:30pm post school she would go back for more practice. “The push from my parents was my strength. They have sacrificed a lot to help me reach where I am. Dad used to take loans from his friends to buy me rackets and pay for my coaching,” she remembers. Did her middle-class status prove to be a hindrance in her progress? “In the beginning, it was really hard monetarily but by the time I was 16 I began winning tournaments and started earning enough. Dad never let me attach much importance to material things. He would say, ‘Don’t bother much about money, just focus on your game.’”
“Gopi Sir’s guidance has helped me improve my game tremendously” Saina discontinued her studies after completing her 12 th board exams. It was not easy choosing between studies and sports but her coach’s confidence in her and her parent’s constant assurance that she would do wonders helped her stay firm on her resolve. Today she is glad she made the decision as it has yielded rich dividends for her besides giving her the satisfaction of having followed her heart. Saina acknowledges that Coach Pullela Gopichand has contributed immensely towards improving her game and making her the success that she is now. “I was always good with rallies but needed to work on speed and stamina. Under Gopi Sir’s guidance I improved my speed and learnt new techniques. He knows how to prepare us for international games.” Saina is quick to brush aside allegations by other players about the lack of facilities at the Badminton Academy. “We never faced any issues at the Academy: we always had access to the best shuttles, the best physio and the best food. We also had Indonesian coaches,” the champion affirms.
From being a commoner to a celebrity, the route has been long for Saina and the success heady. Despite all the fame and money, she is modest and focused. “My family has played a big role, and they have made me what I am today. My father is very cool and relaxed. I have learnt it from him,” she says instantly. The thirst to ace the shuttle runs in her family. Her parents were badminton players; her sister also dabbled in the sport. “My sister is 6ft tall. She used to play badminton too, at the district level. But she suffers from asthma so she could not take it further,” Saina says adding that there was never any sibling rivalry. Even now her sister always calls her before every game and says, ‘Acha Khelna (Play well).’ Saina is very attached to her niece. Ask her if the little one will turn into a future champion shuttler and she chuckles, “Yes, I think so. I have advised my sister to train her. She is still young, but I would love to see her play.”
“IBL will hopefully start a mini revolution”
The latest cause for quiet celebration for Saina is the fact that she has been picked up by the home team (Hyderabad Hotshots) at the IBL. Her bid at the IBL was the highest, $120,000, while the base price was $50,000. “I wanted to be picked by Hyderabad or Lucknow. I am what I am because of Hyderabad today and Lucknow was my second choice because Sahara has been my main sponsor. Hyderabad is my lucky place. Indonesian badminton legend Taufik Hidayat is also part of this team. It is important that the game gets popular,” she replies ecstatically, visibly excited about the event. Badminton as a sport has never been as glamorous or as popular as tennis, but does she feel that with players like her, Jwala and Sindhu this scenario is set to change? “I think 10 years ago no one knew much about badminton while tennis was popular right from the time of Bjorn Borg and McEnroe. However, now I definitely feel that change is in the air and IBL is one of the main harbingers of the change. Glamorous clothes have always been part of women’s tennis but the focus on trendy attire is seeping into badminton as well. Yonex is sponsoring my clothes. They are coming up with interesting clothes for women players,” she says. IBL has also been responsible for the association of actors and celebrity sports personalities like Nagarjuna and Sunny Gavaskar with the game. “It feels great to know that people Nagarjuna and Gavaskar are interested in the sport. So are Sania Mirza, Deepika and Aamir Khan. The more sponsors we get, the bigger the sport becomes.” Saina feels everyone compares every other sport in India to cricket and finds this comparison unfair. “Cricket has hogged the limelight so far. If we want to compare badminton to cricket, we need to pump in that kind of money. It is the cricket association that has made the sport big, it is not the players. IBL will hopefully start a mini revolution and usher in a phase where parents will willingly get their children enrolled in badminton coaching.”
But not all have welcomed IBL with the same enthusiasm as she has. Other players like Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa have been left unhappy. She reacts to allegations made by Jwala and Ashwini, “Such issues happen during big events. In doubles event we have never done so well in India. The game has become popular largely because of singles players, but that does not undermine the importance of the doubles players. We have to understand that not everyone can be taken for $50,000, because that will drain the kitty and there won’t be any funds left to buy other players.”
“I fight to win always, but people’s expectations have started becoming unrealistic”
Every top player goes through a lean patch every now and then and it was no different for Saina who has had more than her share of ‘downs’ in the past 9 months, with the last three tournaments, Thailand Open, Indonesian Open and Singapore Open not quite going her way. “Just before the tournaments started I sustained a knee injury; while I was recovering from it I fractured my toe, I was under bed rest for 5 weeks. I barely managed a week’s practice before the tournaments started,” Saina says. “You cannot win all the time. I fight to win always, but people’s expectations have started becoming unrealistic. They want me to win all the time. While I appreciate their faith in me I feel they should make allowances for fitness issues. High pressure events like the Olympics drain the body and mind of sportspeople and they need sufficient time to bounce back,” she voices. Do the aspirations of the country burden her or does the pressure affect her? She replies, “I have been playing for over 6 years now, people love me. And the country has always cheered for me. I only believe in one thing that if you work hard, you will be the champion. So I don’t let pressure get to me. I have been among the top 5 in the world for the last 5 years. Nobody has managed this feat before and it is definitely challenging because we have the Chinese to fight against. To win them is not easy,” says the world No.3.
While ranking is important, Saina says that she does not let it shift her concentration from the sport, nor does she let controversies and distractions make her lose her focus. She has been preparing hard for the games ahead. “After the world championships I will play the Super-series and IBL this year. Next year is packed with the Commonwealth games, World championships and the Asian games.”
“We need more world class coaches to hone potential talent”
The dominance of Chinese players in badminton has been legendary. How does she view the Chinese challenge and does she feel we can compete with our formidable neighbour? “Yes! We can beat them. It is not easy, since they have more number of players. Every coach there is a champion, be it a world champion or an Olympic champion. That is their advantage: a champion begets a champion and the saga continues. That has not quite happened in India. We have only one coach and he played in 2001; now the game has changed. Of course, he does travel with us and he helps us tremendously but we need more world class coaches to hone potential talent,” she voices. Apparently most Chinese players retire at 25 and become coaches, giving other youngsters the chance to come up. Each player there has an individual coach. “Chinese players live in the academy and make it their home. They leave their family and friends behind. Their only focal point is the game. But our mindset makes us think of such an arrangement as confining. We want to be free and we get offended if we are yelled at,” she adds.
Has Saina’s busy schedule left her with any free time to bond and befriend other players on the foreign circuit? She says, “We play so much, we just think of the game. Also we are always with our team and during tournaments we don’t think of talking to rivals. I speak occasionally to Cheng from Germany and to Tine Baun who is now retired.” Quiz her if she sees emerging players like Sindhu as rivals and she replies, “Competition exists everywhere. Sindhu is playing well; she is on the Malaysian grand prix this year. She is giving me and the other players some tough competition. Other countries have at least 3-4 players competing for the top laurels. So it is good to see the same phenomenon in our country too. Recently, K. Srikanth won the Thailand Open. Gopi Sir is training them well.”Apart from bonding over badminton, Saina and her mentor Gopichand have a unique connection. Both of them won awards in the same year. In 2009, Saina won the Arjuna award while Gopichand won the Dronacharya award. This classifies as a rare feat in Indian sports. How did it feel to share the dais with her coach? “Under Gopi Sir’s guidance, I played well in the 2008 Olympics and reached the quarterfinals. It was quite a big recognition for him and me to be honoured by the Government for our efforts. I was just about 18 then. I will always cherish the memories,” she beams.
“On the podium I knew what P T Usha and Milkha Singh must have felt at having missed the medal by a whisker”
Laurels and Saina have become synonymous. She made the country proud winning Bronze at the London Olympic last year. We were curious to know if she had special training for the Olympics. “The fact that I had won the Thailand and Indonesia Opens just before the Olympics worked in my favour; simultaneously I was also practising for the Olympics. The week before I left for London was one of the toughest for me, as I was down with viral fever. I was unsure if I would cross the 2 nd or 3 rd round. The good thing was that we got 4 days before the match and I trained very hard in that period.” Apart from the physical training, Saina also kept herself mentally strong. She played Wang Xin from China in the bronze medal match. Saina vividly remembers the turning point in the game. “I was down 18-20 and we were engaged in a long rally. During the rally I don’t know what happened, I hit a toss to her and she just twisted her knee and sat down,” she says. Wang took a 15 minute break, put on a tape and got back.
“Obviously the Chinese contingent had come fully prepared for all situations and for a while she seemed to have recovered as she was returning all my shots. But after a point she could not take the pain and gave up. I think I was destined to win bronze,” Saina says with the pride of getting the first badminton medal for India evident in her voice.
“I felt bad when I was on the podium, because I knew I would have won Gold if it had not been for my health. I kept crying because I had dreamt of being an Olympic Gold Medallist. At that moment I knew what legends like P T Usha and Milkha Singh must have felt at having missed the medal by a whisker. But the heady rush of pride I felt on winning accolades for my country soon overtook the regret. Now that I have won the medal, there is no looking back at what could have happened. I have promised myself to try harder and to do better the next time,” she says in her typical never say die spirit. “It is physically very demanding for girls. Moving for one hour all over the court is tough” It is impossible to attain perfection in such a competitive game and Saina has her share of flaws but she is aware of her weaknesses and is constantly bent on overcoming them. “I am good at attacking players, but need to improve on defence, I am working on it.” She also takes defeat positively, “Accepting defeat gracefully is very hard. I do feel irritable and dejected after a loss but I don’t ponder on the ‘what ifs’ for too long. I check on where I went wrong and start working on it. I train a lot before tournaments,” she affirms.
Following in her footsteps a lot of young girls are taking up the sport but badminton is a demanding game. Does she have any tips to offer youngsters? “There are some good days and some bad days. But you need to push harder. You have to train at least for 8-9 hours a day for that 1 hour fight on court,” she suggests. “It is very physically demanding for girls. Moving for one hour all over the court is tough. We need to make our legs and back strong enough to withstand the pressure and also be mentally strong to play each shot with the same energy the whole hour.” It is a special feeling when dreams come true and Saina’s dreams of owning an Audi were realised after her Olympic win when she was gifted a Q5 by the Haryana government. Another proud moment for her was when she was gifted a BMW in 2012 by the Andhra Pradesh sports minister Chamundeshwarnath.
“It was a big thing for me because Sachin Tendulkar presented the car to me. Chamundee Uncle has been a great support. I was 16 when I won my first tournament and he gave me Honda City, when I couldn’t dream of having such big cars. Today uncle has also bought a Badminton team (Mumbai). He has been a big support and shows a huge interest in the game.” Saina also heaps praises on the Haryana government for encouraging sports. “Haryana is a state where both girls and boys are equally encouraged in all sports.” she says.
“Badminton has given me everything and I want to give something back to the game”
Unmindful of everything, she believes in following her own trajectory. Saina has written her own autobiography, ‘Playing to Win’ in English (also available in Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi). The book talks of her entire journey. She credits senior journalist TS Sudhir for inspiring her to pen the book. Sudhir who has written a biography on her titled ‘Saina Nehwal-An Inspirational Biography’ has been covering her work since her childhood. The demanding nature of badminton forces many athletes to retire early. Has Saina thought ahead about life after badminton? “I want to have my academy. Hyderabad has the best academy now. So I would like to build mine somewhere else, probably Haryana. Badminton has given me everything: house, car, fame, money and I want to give something back to the game. I feel proud when someone walks up to me and asks, ‘Are you THE Saina Nehwal?’ That is when I let the thought occur to me that people do look up to me,” she says with her trademark self-assurance and modesty.