Saina Nehwal is currently in a ‘no-media’ and ‘no-fan zone’. In fact, all Olympic-bound shuttlers are, Jwala Gutta being the exception. To utter the ‘O’ word around them is strictly prohibited.
The academy in Hyderabad where they train is like a fortress, with the staff trying their best to tell callers politely that Saina will not be giving interviews or come for a product launch.
Her father, Harvir Singh, still cannot believe that ‘brand Saina’ has become so big. “It is very difficult to manage now, it has grown beyond our imagination. I keep getting phone calls for interviews or invitations to functions...but this is not the time,” he says, finishing off some paperwork in his office at the Directorate of Oilseed Research. “Ever since her early defeat in the India Open in Delhi (in April), she has worked very hard and the results are there for you to see.
“She goes to the academy at 7.30am and comes back around 7 in the evening. Since her mother is visiting relatives in Haryana and Meerut right now, I get bored at home, so I also leave early for office.”
Harvir and his wife, Usha Nehwal, were state-level badminton players in Haryana, before they shifted to Hyderabad. He revealed that after the birth of their first daughter, Abu Chandranshu, (seven years older than Saina), Usha again became an active player at a government clubhouse near their home.
“In fact, she was pregnant with Saina when finally, in the fifth month, our doctor pleaded with her to stop playing.”
Should one draw a similarity with the mythological Abhimanyu learning about the Chakravhyuh while in the womb? “Kuch aisa hi samajh lijiye,” Harvir replies cheerfully.
Three gruelling practice sessions a day and a special dietary plan are keeping Saina in shape. Normally, she would go home in the afternoon, but now, it seems even that is a waste of time, as she prefers to rest at the academy.
“She is like that. Once she makes up her mind about something, she will do it come what may,” her father explains. “Even on tour, after their matches are over, other players would go out for sightseeing. But Saina normally stays in the hotel. Whenever I go with her, I persuade her to come with me,” he says, showing us a picture of Saina posing in front of the Eiffel Tower with him.
The next picture is of Saina holding a small puppy in Paris. “Oh she loves pets. We had a pet dog, which died last year. He was with us for 13 years… I had to stay back in our old apartment with him, while Saina and her mother shifted to a new place a couple of years ago.”
A new apartment is not the only thing Saina has to her name today. Her victories and cash awards, which poured in later, have made her one of the highest paid non-cricketing sportspersons in India. Money gave her the opportunity to indulge in another luxury — cars!
She has four cars now, a metallic-red BMW monster being the latest addition to her fleet, which she drives to the academy everyday. A far cry from the times when a 10-year-old Saina used to ride pillion on her dad’s scooter in the morning on their way to the stadium, a good 30km away. She often used to doze off on the scooter, which prompted her mother to join the early morning parade.
But now, her problems are of a different nature. Though she has four cars, she has space to park only two in her building. So her father has parked the other two in his office’s parking lot, which is next to the makeshift table tennis room where he plays everyday.
Back at the academy, national coach Pullela Gopi Chand, has turned into a super-cautious man and doesn’t want any pressure on the largest ever badminton team India is sending to the Olympics. With Saina just having returned to the country with two back-to-back titles, why blame us for getting our hopes high?
The entire senior team practices for an hour and after that Gopi’s attention is solely on Saina and P Kashyap. Personal sessions with them to get their strokes right takes another hour before they break for lunch. This is just what meets the eye, but there is a bigger team working on a bigger plan, which would put FBI’s best-kept secrets to shame.
At the Beijing Olympics, an 18-year-old Saina was three-titles old and ranked 13th in the world. India won three medals there, but Saina’s performance — she became the first badminton player from India to reach quarters — did not go unnoticed. She was leading by a considerable margin and, had it not been for the ‘I-am-almost-in-Olympics-semis’ feeling, who knows what India’s medal tally would have looked then.
Looking at the way Saina has jumped up the charts, it is no wonder that the best in the world now fear her. After her victories in Thailand and Indonesia, the 22-year-old spoke about her opponents from China, saying, “One could see that everyone was now very, very focused on the Games and preparing hard.”
What about you?"I am not thinking about the Olympics." And you think we will believe you?