As Saina Nehwal turns 19 today, Nikhil Taneja corners the country’s best badminton player.
Happy birthday! What are your plans for the day?
Thank you! (Giggles) I’ll just distribute chocolates amongst my friends. I don’t really celebrate anything.
Don’t tell me you didn’t celebrate getting into the top 10 at the age of 18?
I didn’t! If I win, then I only train harder so I can win the next match. If I lose, again my punishment is to sweat it out the entire day. I don’t want to start celebrating too soon. The aim is to do better and keep winning big.
Seriously.. no celebrations?
(Smiles) Seriously! I’m usually too busy with tournaments. I’m like that only. My life is boring, but what to do?
So you don’t even pamper yourself after a win?
(Laughs) No.. I like playing so much that I don’t like taking breaks. And if I keep thinking about taking a break at this stage of my career, I might as well stop playing.
You have just come back from injury. You don’t think you need to relax a bit?
There’s no time to relax. Even during the injury, physical training like running kept my mind away from the pain.
Do you feel guilty when you are not training?
(Laughs) Yes I do! I usually don’t get injured, touchwood. And when I do, I try everything possible to get back on the court, pronto.
Ever regret missing out on a regular college life?
I miss doing time-pass with friends. But I enjoy badminton so much that it doesn’t really matter too much.
You had a dream run last year. Isn’t it an ego boost when you are beating senior players?
I still feel like a kid in front of all these top players. But yeah, it’s great when the hours of training pay off. I was only 18 and was playing against No.1 and No.2 players. When I’m winning, I feel like I’m No. 1! But after the match, it’s back to normal.
Does the numbers game play in your head?
Not when I’m playing a match. It’s not like a No. 10 player is up against the No.5 or No. 20. I play to win, no matter who my opponent.
What happens when you lose?
As I said, I just work even harder to overcome my weaknesses. To make it to this level, you have to lose as many matches as you win. It doesn’t matter if I lose as long as I win the next time.
That’s your on-court philosophy?
My philosophy is to not be scared of anyone. If I play well, great, if I don’t, I learn from the match and move on.
Name one game that was the turning point, literally?
The win at the Philippine Open in 2006.. that’s when I realised that I could do well at the international level and getting into the top 10 was attainable.
So what had you thought for yourself when you first picked up the badminton racquet?
(Smiles) When I was a kid, my parents would play badminton but I hardly joined them. I’d just pick up their racquets, and fiddle around. Check out how the racquet was made.. toss it around to see how light it was! At the time, I didn’t even know I’d play badminton.
When did you first start playing?
It was in 1998, when we shifted from Haryana to Hyderabad. I was really bored at home. My parents took me to the Lal Bahudar Stadium. Luckily, I got a good coach immediately, and from the beginning, I started winning most of my matches. That kept me motivated.
What was the first goal you set for yourself?
Believe it or not, after one year of badminton, I decided I wanted to win an Olympic gold. I used to watch the Olympic Games on TV as a child, and liked Indonesia’s Taufiq Hidayat. When he won a gold medal in 2004, I decided I would too, one day. It’s okay to dream.. maybe it will come true in the next Olympics.
What has been the contribution of your coach, Pullela Gopichand, to your success?
(Smiles) He is such a simple and honest man and works really hard to train me well. His way of thinking is that it’s good to cry
during a training session, than cry on court.
On the court, he’s a coach, off it, he’s a friend. I’m very lucky to have him as my coach. Today, when foreign coaches say that I’ve got most of the strokes, I feel so proud of him. He rarely gets angry. The only time he scolded me was at the Olympics, when I wasn’t playing well in the initial stages. (Laughs) That’s why I played well later, I guess!
Do you feel that public perception towards you changed in the last couple of years?
The only big difference I see is that more people are coming to watch my matches!
So.. has attention from guys increased after the Olympics?
(Laughs) I really don’t know, yaar. I hardly step out of the stadium when in Hyderabad. I’m only with my coaches.. and I’m only playing matches.
You don’t feel that all eyes are on you when you go out?
At this point in time, I’m not really bothered about how many guys are interested in me or if my fan following has increased.
What did you do on Valentine’s Day?
(Giggles) Nothing, I was training all day and in the evening, I was working on getting my visa.
Yeah, we heard that you had problems with your passport and visa.
(Gets serious) All sportspersons other than cricketers face such problems. Badminton is not as glamorous as cricket.
But the government should realise that if they don’t look into such formalities, this game will never reach that stature cricket has.
(Shrugs) It’s okay, I’m sure I can contribute to making that happen soon. You know, I’ve been told that I’m the best player the country has produced.
Usually, foreigners don’t know anyone from India besides Aishwarya Rai. I feel good they know my name too! Yet, I have to struggle to get my visa and passport.
Do you watch movies?
I watch Shah Rukh Khan’s movies.. he’s the best. He’s worked very hard to get here and today, he’s the badshah.
He worked with Deepika Padukone who’s a former junior level state player. Would you do a movie with him one day too?
(Laughs uproariously) I’m like his kid! I just want to meet him once, bas. I think when he meets me, he’ll also tell me to concentrate on my game.
Were you upset when you didn’t get the Padmashri?
Badminton is not a popular sport in India. So I don’t really mind missing out on awards because I’m not expecting to win national honours in any case. But it’ll be great if the mindset of people changes soon. Today, they recognise me as Saina Nehwal, a sports person, not as Saina Nehwal, the badminton player. That’s not the case with cricket, is it?
The media has always been friendly but they don’t give badminton as much importance as cricket. Being in the top 10 is not a joke.. and you guys should understand that and give me due recognition. Hopefully, people will take notice if I become No 1.
What does being No. 1 mean to you personally?
It means you are the best in the world. And that’s what I dream of every day.