The great American swimmer, Michael Phelps, once said: “You can’t put a limit on anything. The more you dream, the farther you get.” Those who know Saina Nehwal, to be crowned the world’s No.1 woman badminton player on Thursday, are convinced she shares these sentiments. But even if she didn’t, it would have been all right. Nehwal is to badminton in India what Roger Bannister was to the four-minute-mile barrier. After she proved that she could beat the Chinese at their game, India has had unprecedented success in badminton. PV Sindhu is with Nehwal in the world’s top-10 and K Srikanth leads the charge with three Indians in the men’s top 20. That’s some achievement for a country once solely reliant on Prakash Padukone to add a dash of colour in the 1980s before Pullela Gopichand became world No. 4.
Just as Sania Mirza’s success spurred Indian girls to take to tennis, Nehwal’s success in particular and that of Indian shuttlers in general has led to a surge in the number of participants in badminton tournaments. The arrival of Sindhu has pushed Nehwal to improve her game and Rituparna Das and Ruthvika Shivani are said to be GenNext. We are still a long way from China, which won all five gold medals badminton offered in the 2012 London Olympics, but then even the smallest localities there have fully equipped training centres and there is a culture of making coaches out of former legends. India only has Gopichand. Nehwal now trains under Vimal Kumar with Padukone too providing inputs but both have acknowledged the effort Gopichand and, to an extent, SM Arif, put into the making of Nehwal.
Cricket continues to be India’s No. 1 sport but gradually the number of champions from beyond the boundary is increasing. Nehwal is a luminous presence in that list that already has Viswanathan Anand, Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, Koneru Humpy, D Harika, Abhinav Bindra and Sushil Kumar among others. As she continues through the season, Nehwal will know that the rankings business is a greasy pole. But she has what it takes to stay on top for some time to come.