On September 17, when Saina Nehwal posted pictures on Twitter posing with Shah Rukh Khan, it wasn’t any other 25-year-old basking in a fan-girl moment. It was a feeling Saina relished as much as she loves winning a tournament. For a few hours, she stopped acting as the number one badminton player in the world and held on to every word the Badshah of Bollywood was saying.
“When I heard that he was shooting in Hyderabad for Dilwale, I tweeted whether I could meet him. It was really nice of him to spend time with me and let me watch the shooting,” she gushes, as she settles down for an interview with Brunch at the rooftop café of the Tata Padukone Badminton Academy in Bangalore.
Now this wasn’t the first time Saina was interacting with an A-list celebrity. Aamir Khan is one of her biggest supporters and Sachin Tendulkar routinely speaks to her when she is in India. What’s so special about meeting SRK?
“I identify with him. I want to be the Shah Rukh Khan of badminton!” says Saina, who recently regained the top spot in women’s singles in the Badminton World Federation rankings. “Like Shah Rukh sir, who conquered the world of movies coming from an ordinary, non-film family, I too want to excel in my chosen field. My family too didn’t have any big connection with badminton. But today, like him, I can say, I am the best,” she declares, fultoo filmi style.
One can almost hear the nasal twang with which SRK said: “Don’t underestimate the power of a common man!” in Chennai Express. That’s the extraordinary niceness of being Saina Nehwal. She may have inked a 25-crore endorsement deal with sports management group, IOS Sports & Entertainment on the back of retaining the top ranking, but her success story began in ordinary, middle-class surroundings.
A tale of two cities
The year was 1999. The evening sun was making way for the harsh LED lights of Hyderabad’s Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium. In the courtside area, Dronacharya-Award-winning coach SM Arif was urging students to complete one final session of fitness drills, before they called it a day. “Even as many trainees were groaning about their limbs, one nine-year-old, sweat running down her T-shirt, was asking me if she could exercise some more. That gritty girl has become the world’s best badminton player. Eager to work harder than others on skills as well as fitness, Saina never wanted to stop exercising,” remembers Arif about his protégé.
A mix of running, weight training, badminton drills and on-court exercises, Saina’s workout regime at one time bordered on gruelling. But she loved it. “That’s what makes me happy. As a child, Arif sir helped strengthen my endurance levels. When I moved to the international stage, I was lucky that I went to Gopi sir [Pullela Gopichand] at the right time and now I am fortunate to move to Bangalore and train with Vimal sir [Vimal Kumar], who has helped me become number one.”
Since she shifted base to Bangalore last year, in a move that upset fans of Gopichand, Saina has been on a hot winning streak. Apart from becoming the top player in the world, Saina won the China Open and the India Open Super Series, reached the finals of the All England Championships and the final of the World Championships.
“I am at a happier place in my life. When I was in Hyderabad, there wasn’t much improvement after a point. I was a little upset with the way I was playing. I was losing to Chinese players Li Xuerui, Wang Yihan and Wang Shixian quite regularly. I could either have sat there waiting for my time to come or done something to improve my game. Being a player, you need to be selfish at times. I want to win for my country. Luckily for me, Vimal sir was there at the World Championships in Copenhagen. He told me I was good but I would have to play much better in order to beat the top players consistently.”
Once you reach rarefied levels of sport, no athlete can rely simply on the coach’s instructions, says Vimal Kumar. They need to move away from the Asian (read Chinese) model of training, where the student simply follows what the coach says without asking questions. “Today, Saina has much greater say in terms of her training and on-court sessions,” says Kumar. “I’ve been encouraging her to put forth her views. Now she discusses a lot of her ideas with me and we formulate the training sessions on that basis. She seems to be enjoying the process,” says the seasoned coach.
The first thing that Kumar told her when she shifted to Bangalore was that Saina had to regain her confidence, quick. “Over a period of two months, I began forgetting the losses to all these players and started beating them again to reclaim my confidence. And nothing gives me more happiness than winning,” says Saina.
So obsessed is Saina about winning and representing India that she puts away life’s simple pleasures if they happen to clash with the game. She often skips her birthday celebrations in March as they coincide with a tournament in Europe. She can’t remember the last time she celebrated her birthday with her loved ones. “What’s so special about a birthday? Like army officers who serve the nation, if I do well for India on my birthday, I feel nice. In 2011, when I won the Swiss Open final on my birthday, it became a special moment.”
Mental toughness and taking pleasure in working hard could well be the leitmotif of the Saina story. Ask Sports Authority of India coach Bhaskar Babu about what impressed him about Saina as a junior and he says it was her ambition. “She kept talking about how she could beat players ranked much higher. And then she went ahead and did just that. Also the role of her parents in ensuring that Saina stayed sincere in her pursuit can’t be overemphasised.”
Babu recalls how Saina’s father Harvir, an agricultural scientist, used to drive 25 kilometres on his scooter to drop her for morning practice. When she began travelling to small towns in Andhra Pradesh to participate in tournaments, her mother Usha Rani would accompany her and ensure her diet was never compromised. “Even at smaller venues, I would search for a juice vendor and made sure I kept a glass on the courtside if she was playing a match. I would also ensure she had her glass of milk twice every day,” says Usha Rani.
It was her mom, who has represented Haryana in badminton, who first put the idea of winning an Olympic medal into nine-year-old Saina’s head. “We knew that if she kept her focus, she would make the nation proud at the Olympics one day. It was a dream her father and I dreamt for Saina,” says Usha Rani.
Back from the edge
Saina famously realised the dream at London 2012, in the process, becoming the first Indian badminton player to win an Olympic medal. Since then, after attaining the number two ranking, her game began to slide and at one point in 2014, she was even contemplating quitting the game. “Any player will feel bad if they lose continuously. In particular, the world championship losses were hurting me [she lost five times in the quarter-final stage before making it to the final in 2015]. Excelling in singles is very difficult to achieve. You need lots of physical strength and quick reflexes,” says Saina.
But that is exactly what Saina is known for, affirms eight-time national singles champion and present-day coach Madhumita Bisht. “Most times when Saina engages her rivals in long rallies, her fitness helps her outlast them. Since the time I’ve been with the team, one cannot but appreciate her mental toughness that helped her beat Chinese players with such regularity that the slogan Saina versus China was coined,” adds Bisht.
Once her training needs are taken care of, Saina can focus on improving her court movement and developing new strokes. But it is far from easy, even for a world-beater, she says. “I am not a naturally gifted player. I have to work harder on my shots and developing new strokes and using them in matches. But it is easier with someone like Vimal sir in my corner. He comes prepared with a personalised plan for my training every day,” she says.
Of late, losing to Carolina Marin of Spain in the finals of two important tournaments (the All England and the World Championships), has brought some criticism Saina’s way. But she isn’t fazed. “It is part of a sportsperson’s life. I can’t say when I will play Carolina next. But I’ll definitely do something to improve my record when I meet her. It is a good rivalry and she is doing extremely well. I hope I improve even more and beat her.”
Along with Marin, Saina considers Li Xuerui and Wang Yihan of China among her toughest opponents. How does she stay ahead of the curve in the age of video analyses and rival coaches bent on sorting players out? “You never know when you will go down again or emerge on top. But the world number one ranking is something everybody dreams of. I would like to keep this honour for as long as I can. But I need to keep myself much fitter, stronger and mentally tough, along with the belief that I can beat all the players in the world.”
With her ranking rising, so have people’s expectations from Saina. With a World Championship medal, an All England final and the tag of the best player in the universe, can an Olympic gold be far behind, ask the fans. But Saina isn’t thinking that far ahead. “You never know what can happen before I head to Rio. Winning a medal is not in my hands. What is in my hands is enjoying this moment and working hard in every session!”
Ever since she moved to Bangalore, Saina has been leading a monastic lifestyle, which revolves around practice, recovery and some more practice. She has swapped her villa in Hyderabad with a room in the academy where she stays, along with her mother. What does she miss the most about Hyderabad? “My pet dog, home food, friends and of course, my father. At the age of 24, it was difficult moving away from them. Still, it is tough for me to stay away from my pet and my father. Let us see how long I can push it,” she says.
One of her biggest distractions when Saina wants to switch off from the cut-throat competition of badminton is Hindi films. “Most of our tournaments end up being really tense and watching a Bollywood film, particularly one which makes me laugh can be a great stress-buster. You laugh your worries away for some moments.”
As SRK may testify, Saina is a Bollywood ‘fan’ at heart. A Dubsmash video that she made with doubles player Akshay Dewalkar featured scenes from Damini in which she did a Sunny Deol, showing off her toned biceps for the ‘Dhai kilo ka haath’ and mimicked Paresh Rawal’s dialogues from Hera Pheri and Andaz Apna Apna. “Paresh Rawal’s comic timing was fantastic in these movies. We ended up laughing a lot while doing the videos and they went viral,” she smiles.
One morepic.twitter.com/5zNJdBgzgP— Saina Nehwal (@NSaina) June 1, 2015
Has Saina put her personal life on hold till she realises her dream of a gold medal at the Olympics – is marriage, for instance, on the horizon? “Marriage is not on my mind. Let us see till when I keep playing well. I will only be 26 after the Rio Olympics. It will happen when it has to happen. I am not so keen on marriage. But I am keen on continuing to do well for the country and making India proud.”
She has many more tournaments before the Olympics, including the upcoming world championships, to do that. Let’s not wait till Rio to celebrate our number one champion.
Photos by Raj K Raj
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From HT Brunch, October 4
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