The shuttler who stunned the world

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Saina Nehwal’s bronze will fuel a new generation of badminton aspirants, writes TS Sudhir

It was the under-10 badminton tournament at Thane in Maharashtra where Saina Nehwal lost in the semi-finals in 1999. Goverdhan Reddy, who used to coach the nine-year-old then, remembers the moment when Saina was exiting the court.

“There was a grille that she had to cross. Her mother Usha Rani was standing beside the grille. The moment Saina crossed, Usha Rani slapped her. I rushed asking, Aunty why are you hitting her? Her reply in Hindi was,‘Jis tarah se khelna tha, nahin kheli nalayak. Bilkul dhyan se nahi kheli’ (She did not play the game the way she should have. She just did not concentrate).”

Over the years Saina–who is scheduled to return to India on Tuesday with the bronze medal she won at the London Olympics–has often attributed part of her success on court to those tight slaps delivered by her mother. Usha Rani had a good reputation as a badminton player back home in Hisar and used to play mixed doubles with husband Dr Harvir Singh on the agricultural university campus. She would often tell Goverdhan, “What I could not achieve, Saina should”. In fact, Harvir Singh reckons Usha Rani a better skilled player than Saina. “Even today, people who saw her play in Hisar remember her flicks, the way she would move her wrist,” he says.

What makes Saina’s meteoric rise truly special is the manner in which her parents, once they recognised her talent in badminton, backed her to the hilt. What helped was their passion for the sport and the mother’s regret in not making it big—which is why London is a dream fulfilled as much for Usha Rani as it is for Saina.

The Nehwal family revolves around Saina. And not just now because of her star status. It has been the case ever since she wielded a racquet for the first time in May 1999. It was as if the family was on a mission to make her a champion shuttler. Though elder sister Abu Chandranshu flirted with volleyball, Saina’s time on the court occupied everyone’s mind space. The shuttler acknowledges that no family problem was ever discussed with her and everyone only ensured she remained happy to focus on badminton.

It isn’t easy for a middle-class family to bear the costs involved in encouraging a child to take to professional badminton. Travelling for tournaments burnt a hole in the Nehwal family pocket but the parents were backing their instincts. And perhaps their own DNA too.

Today, visit the Nehwal home and Harvir Singh will point to all white goods and artefacts informing you that they are all purchased by Saina. Yes, there is regret that she could not complete her education, but the parents console themselves by saying she has achieved a lot more. “Saina must be the only child who does not go to her college as a student but as a chief guest. And has a block in the school she studied in named after her,” says a proud Harvir Singh.

Those are some of the sacrifices professional sportspersons have to necessarily make, says national badminton coach Pullela Gopichand. “The day I wrote my final year B.A exam, I promised myself I will never write an exam again in my life. Most of the students at the academy study for a month before the exams and score 70 per cent. That’s enough. If you want to excel at sports, you cannot mix it with giving equal importance to studies, eating out, meeting relatives and a holiday in the US. This needs focus 365 days a year, 24×7,” he says.

Saina is one of those to believe 100 per cent in this mantra. The Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad serves as her second home and workplace, rolled into one. For two months, before the London Olympics, she spent over 12 hours at the Academy, returning home only to give company to her bed at night. What she ate, what she did before and after practice, how much she rested, how she relaxed, just about everything was monitored strictly. The decision to make her lose 5.5 kg in the first three months of this year was a gamble. Gopi wanted to ensure she moved faster on court but there was every possibility that her stamina could get adversely affected and she got tired faster. Her ability to retrieve quick on court in London was proof that luck favours the brave.

Saina’s sublime form was missing in the semi-final of the Olympics against world number one Yihan Wang. Saina had never got the better of Wang in her previous five encounters and on Friday, when it mattered the most, it was as if her feet had gone on strike. Wang shot down the feeble Indian challenge in straight sets, pushing Saina to play for the bronze medal against world number 2, Wang Xin.

Wang Xin suffered an injury to her knee during the first game and the terrible pain forced her to forfeit the match. This surely wasn’t the way Saina would have loved to be on the podium but then it was as if the Chinese gameplan to bag all three medals had gone kaput. For some time now, Saina has remained the sole non-Chinese in the top five. Her victories over Li Xuerui (who won the gold medal at the Olympics) and Shixian Wang at the Indonesia Open in June prompted the Chinese to go into a huddle to stop Saina in her tracks in London. And come to think of it, the plan almost worked.

Saina’s regret remains that she will not have gold to declare to the customs when she returns to her country, but the bronze medal will work magic for Indian badminton. Gopichand’s triumph at the All England spawned an entire generation of badminton players and Saina’s London exploits, coupled with P Kashyap’s brave showing will act as a catalyst for gen-next of badminton aspirants and their parents.

TS Sudhir is the author of Saina Nehwal: An Inspirational Biography that released in July 2012

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