She’s got that winning feeling

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Saina Nehwal, her coach says, might not be the most talented player in the world, but she is the feistiest. TS Sudhir on what it took to win the Olympic bronze

Bronze beauty Nehwal with her father Harvir Singh
Photo: AFP

EVEN AFTER two hours, the tears wouldn’t stop. Saina Nehwal had lost in the semi-final of the London Olympics to Yihan Wang of China. Saina, who doting fans and admirers expected to return home with a gold medal, found herself outplayed by the World No. 1. “My feet just did not move,” she told her father. Later that evening, on the eve of the match for the bronze medal against World No. 2 Wang Xin, her coach Pullela Gopichand insisted Saina watch the recording of the match against Yihan Wang.

“I did not want to, but he insisted and forced me to watch,” she said. “I realised I had not played a smart game against Wang. Though Gopi Sir had told me to go for volleys and push Yihan back, I had not implemented the strategy properly. Next day, I played much better against Wang Xin,” she said.

So did Saina spend a sleepless night, ruing the defeat? She laughs. “I was more sleepless before the semifinal. I slept really very well after the semi-final!”

That perhaps helped. Both Saina and Gopi feel even if Wang X in had not retired hurt, Saina still had a good chance to win the medal by winning the match. “She was making a good comeback, coming back stronger,” says Gopi.

Saina on the podium at the Olympic Games was a dream her mother Usha Rani saw for her younger daughter many years ago. That, in many senses, was the starting point in the story of the making of this champion. Usha Rani was herself a competent badminton player. A better player than me, admits her husband Harvir Singh. But the mother could never proceed beyond the university level for lack of encouragement and facilities. Which is why Singh, an agricultural scientist, describes his decision to seek a transfer from Hisar to Hyderabad as dictated by a higher power.

What makes Saina different from many players her age is her Arjuna-like focus. Two months before the Olympics, she began spending 12 hours at the academy, going home only to sleep. The idea was to get into what players call “the zone”, where you are like a hermit, meditating on what you aspire for the most. Live badminton, breathe badminton 24×7. She did something else that many of her colleagues did not. She refused to do any endorsements or make public appearances for the media before the London event.

Which is why when ‘Arjuna’ Saina hit the fish’s eye on Saturday, 4 July, it surprised a few. But then London was not conquered in a single day. It was the culmination of a 13-year story of struggle, dedication and single-minded focus. That meant travelling a total of 100 km on a two-wheeler or an autorickshaw every day, twice from home to the Lal Bahadur Stadium, in the early days. Those days when Saina’s visits to national camps in other cities meant travelling with two bags — one, the badminton sports kit and the other, her school bag. When it meant reluctantly having to eat chicken because Gopi thought it would give her the necessary strength. Given a choice, Saina would still love to stuff her plate with rajma chaawal and roti. And, of course, giving up a typical youngster’s life, gorging on ice cream, chocolates, and generally having a good time.

But ask Saina today if she regrets missing out on typical teenage indulgences and she asks, “Is there anything better than standing on the podium? If you ask me, that is life. So many people would want to do that, wouldn’t they?”

Though badminton is not as expensive a sport as, say, tennis for a middle-class family, it is enough to burn a hole in the pocket. Harvir Singh dipped into his Provident Fund several times to help realise Saina’s badminton dream. He even got her expensive shuttles to ensure she did not get foxed playing with a different kind of shuttle in the tournament. The family had to invest in a car because making a sleepy Saina ride pillion on the scooter during the early morning ride to the stadium was risky. And last but not least, her parents have had to constantly live with the guilt that they did not ensure Saina furthered her education beyond school.

“Yes, I live with those regrets. How I never bought her a doll and instead gave her a badminton racquet. But then, when I think of all she has achieved, I feel proud. I can only wish every parent has a daughter like Saina,” says Singh.

“The life of a player is not easy,” coach Gopichand often says. That is invariably the first thing Gopi tells parents who come to him with the hope that he will turn their son or daughter into another Saina or Parupalli Kashyap. He will tell you frankly that Saina is not the best player he has seen or the most talented, but what makes her superior to everyone else is her interest, energy and enthusiasm that does not take a dip even once between morning and evening, from a Monday to a Saturday. Every day of the week, every month of the year, year after year, she was willing to push herself to do her best. That is what made her a champion, says Gopi.

Another trait that marks out Saina is the intensity with which she hates defeat. When asked what she loves most about badminton, her reply is childlike: “I love to win.” This obsession to end up on the winning side saw her battle World No. 4 Shixian Wang in a gruelling 97-minute match at the Indonesia Open in June. The win more than made up for the struggle.

AT 22, Saina has age on her side. The first Olympic medal won by a badminton player is in her kitty but she is planning on a long innings. When asked how many years she will go on like this, she says, “If I win, I can continue forever.” That is the spirit that drives her.

In her younger days, Saina was more known for her “maar doongi” attitude on court. And if an opponent had defeated her, her idea of revenge meant she wanted to win by the same score she had lost. When she was 13, she defeated players who were 23 or 24 and seniors resented her aggressive, yet aloof, attitude. But ask Gopi or a veteran player like Aparna Popat and they will tell you it is a great attitude for a sportsperson to have.

Saina today is poised to do to Indian badminton what Gopi’s triumph at the All England did in 2001. Inspire an entire generation to take to badminton as a professional sport. And if the seeds sown today translate into fruits a decade or so from now, you know the story began in London.

Sudhir is the author of  Saina Nehwal: An Inspirational Biography

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