If you saw her in a pair of jeans and T-shirt, speaking in that distinctive and delightfully Hyderabadi accent, you could easily mistake her for a girl next door. But you will make no such mistake if you spot the same girl on a badminton court, chasing the shuttle down relentlessly and packing a lot of tactical thought in doing that. You cannot mistake the combination of power and elegance when Saina Nehwal is on court.
Standing at five foot five, the 19-year-old became the toast of the nation when she won the Indonesian Open in Jakarta with a victory over World No. 3 Lin Wang to become the first Indian woman to claim a Super Series tournament. “I was playing all the top players in the tournament and the truth is that before each round I had been thinking I would lose but once I stepped on court, I would be very positive. Instead of hurrying up, I made my opponents run. I was in control. It worked out very well.”
Her performance will rank alongside the All-England conquests by Prakash Padukone (1980) and Pullela Gopi Chand (2001). “To be compared with legends like them in great but I am a kid in front of them. I believe I am only at the start of my career and there is a lot of work left to be done,” she says and the modesty rings very true. “Yes, it is a great compliment to be spoken of in the same breath as them. Again I know that I have to do well in a lot of tournaments and I hope to equal their achievements some day. They are superb players and I really respect them.”
For someone who has clearly taken over as the darling of India’s sports fans from fellow Hyderabadi, tennis ace Sania Mirza, the badminton ace has already showcased her focus and her willingness to work extra to achieve her goals. She trains hard to stay fit as she knows that fitness is critical to her success, especially against hard-nosed Chinese women who form her stiffest competition. She is a keen listener and is ready to tweak her game when she sees value in it. There is ample of proof of that in the manner in which she addresses the challenge of facing familiar opponents and taking them by surprise with a different new approach.
“I am player. I have to go through both winning and losing,” she says, explaining her approach to success and failure. “You can’t keep winning all the time. If you lose once, it’s not as if one cannot win again. That is how I approach the game. The Chinese do not play so many tournaments and you don’t see them all in all the tournaments. And you will face different challenges from them all the time.”
The teenager appears to be sound when it comes to managing her time. She aggravated a shoulder problem during the Korean Open and spent a few weeks regaining strength, under direction from trainer Heath Matthews. “Later, when I got back to training on court, I also worked on my defence because I was weak there. But, more importantly, I worked on my mental strength especially in areas like patience. There was a time when I used to be very impatient and lose a series of points but now I have realised the value of patience,” she says. “I am glad I have Gopi sir to tell me where I was going wrong, rushing through the last few points. It was one of my main mistakes. All this has added to my confidence.”
Talking of mental strength, it is amazing how someone so young can handle the pressure of expectations. “I do feel some pressure at times. I have been the first Indian to be in a world junior final, the first to win a world junior title, the first Indian woman to win a Grand Prix event. I have got used to it and I don’t think too much about it,” she says. “The good thing is that I don’t take any pressure. Otherwise I will not be able to give off such good performances consistently. I do not take court thinking I am world No. 7 or a big sportsperson. I remind myself that I am a normal girl, out to enjoy myself, rather than assume that I am a champion. It is not easy but I try and not think about the pressure of expectation. I have a good coach who always tells me to not think about that. I focus on being working hard and keeping fit. When you are fit, you don’t feel the pressure. If you have not trained well, that is when you have the doubts and feel the pressure.
Her nascent career has not been free of controversy. The most recent was completely avoidable. Having forgotten to take the right steps to ensure her entry to the China Open was sent in time, she made an ill-advised attempt to tell the media that the Badminton Association of India had delayed the paper work. In December last year, when she needed her passport to be renewed urgently after she gained entry into the World Super Series Masters final in Singapore, she had done well to draw the attention of the media and Chief Passport Officer R Swaminathan ensured that her passport was delivered on time.
Ask her when we could expect her to scale the top of the ladder and she responds spontaneously – in fact, not even waiting the question to finish – and says she is not looking at No. 1 straightaway. “I first want to break into the top five and then work to get into the top three. After that is when I will really focus on No.1. Yes, it is the larger goal but that demands great levels of consistent in terms of winning a lot of tournaments,” she says, offering a lesson in planning which is steeped in realism.
Truth to tell, Saina would have ended up as one of the millions of girls-next-door had it not been for her parents Harvir Singh and Usha Nehwal’s decision to relocate to from Hissar in Haryana to Hyderabad in 1998 so that she could take the first big steps into the world of badminton. Having been reasonably good players themselves in their time, they made enormous adjustments in their lives to ensure that she could train first with Nani Prasad and then with the renowned SM Arif before former All-England champion P Gopi Chand took her under his wings. And, I dare say, she has soared.
As for the 19-year-old herself, she knows she cannot live the life of the girl next door but that is a small price to pay for actualising her dream of making big waves on the international badminton circuit. But in doing that, she has sown the seeds of thousands of other dreams in the minds of the young of this nation. Indeed, Saina Nehwal’s achievements extend far beyond the lines on a synthetic surface that go into the making of a badminton court.