The pursuit of excellence always makes for a fascinating study. And, thanks to Saina Nehwal, we now have another remarkable Indian case study unfolding before us. The reining Indian badminton queen has won three international titles in as many weeks, making our hearts swell with pride and pushing the FIFA World Cup to the second spot, even if for a day.
Barely 20, Saina Nehwal has achieved something that few Indians have achieved – three titles in three weeks. Of course, PT Usha has won five gold medals and a silver in the 1985 Asian track and field meet in Jakarta and followed that up with four gold and a silver in the Asian Games in Seoul the following year but a winning streak over three weeks is rare indeed.
Truth to tell, consistency has been the hallmark of Saina Nehwal’s amazing journey. From the time she made it to the quarterfinals of the Olympic Games in Beijing two years ago, she has nearly always kept her date with the round of eight in major events and has progressed farther many times.
Thanks to her efforts, we do get to read about her on-court exploits, attaching ourselves and our emotions with her success or failure. What we often overlook is the kind of hard work that goes into the making of a champion. It would not be wrong to say that she has led the life of a monk, sacrificing what can be called normal life in her quest to get better.
The 20-year-old 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. Yes, her achievements extend far beyond the lines that mark a badminton court.
Saina Nehwal 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. 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, she has soared.
Indeed, she has raised the bar time and again at such a young age. How she handles the next few years – and in major events like the World championship, the Olympic Games and the Asian Games –will be worth watching. Going by her showing in the past two years, not just her levels of commitment in the past three weeks, it would be safe to wager on her raising the bar higher.
Her approach to success and failure is fascinating. “I am player. I have to go through both winning and losing,” she said. “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. Take for example the Chinese girls. They 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.”
She appears to be sound when it comes to managing her time. And, if you talking of mental strength, it is amazing how someone so young can handle the pressure of expectations. “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,” she said. “I focus on 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.”
I asked her when she won the Indonesian Open last year when we could expect her to scale the top of the ladder and she said she was 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 said, offering a lesson in planning steeped in realism.
Back in January 1977, a certain Martina Navratilova won three tour tennis titles in Washington, Houston and Minneapolis in the United States. We all know the incredible heights to which she rose. The pressure of expectation will now grow but clearly Saina Nehwal is enjoying the process without being unduly worried about the results. And, that is one of the reasons why her pursuit of excellence makes for such a wonderful case study.