Saina Nehwal is watching the shuttle and I am watching her. Her neck is tilted, back arched, feet making tiny, rapid adjustments to maintain perfect balance as the shuttle falls. You could blindfold her and she’d hit it, she’s done it so many times, a thousand last week, a million last year, till the movement is engraved into her muscles.
Still, when it happens, when her wrist snaps like a practised schoolteacher administering a cane, and the shuttle hisses cross-court and lands in kissing distance of the sideline, I exhale at its perfection. Particularly because I am standing, motionless, on the other side of the net.
Television is limited. It cannot communicate the subtlety of Nehwal’s feathered spin, it cannot translate speed. It shows us the badminton smash, it tells us it moves at roughly 250 kmph, but we cannot feel it.
Unless you stand on court, in competitive distance, and get a first-hand fleeting taste of Nehwal’s touch and power, embroidery followed by muscle with both married to precision. She concedes she’s smashing at only 80 per cent, and if you imagine her at full throttle, all lightning exactness, only one conclusion is possible: we use the same rackets, but she’s playing some other game.
Meeting an athlete for the first time is akin to an archaeological dig. You prod at them, brush away the superficial, look for signs and clues that there’s something different within. One week before she wins the Indonesian Open, Nehwal agrees to briefly knock with me in Singapore. She is absent of affectation but not of firmness. We’ll play in the morning, talk only after the evening match. The professional in the teenager isn’t willing to compromise. It is a good sign.
Nehwal owns a hardness that’s difficult to define, it’s just there in her body during play, her face, her conversation, something unyielding, an appetite for victory. Then she gives a sign. All athletes believe their sport is special, so she’s asked, what’s beautiful about badminton, what does she like. She doesn’t blink: “I like winning”.
Her game has no shyness, it’s assertive and athletic. She is occasionally nervous, but always game. The Chinese are badminton’s benchmark, flagellated on the training court to an inch of perfection, and Nehwal says: “They are very strong, as if made of iron. They can hit 10 smashes in a row.”
The respect is nice, but it’s the finish to her sentence that provides another clue. “It’s good to fight with them,” she states, and it shows she understands there’s no side door to greatness, only one path: to be the best, you have to not just beat the best, you have to want to. Twice in Indonesia she beat Chinese players.
Badminton is hell on the lungs, thighs, shoulders, all lithe, lunging lunacy. Nehwal likes to practice, it’s like some sweaty badge she wears, saying that as a kid “coaches liked my hard work”. It’s why her coach P.Gopichand, an old pal of toughness, uses that word for Nehwal. When it’s time for practice, he notes, she’s often the first on the team bus.
Gopichand offers another clue. Athletes are constantly updating repertoires, but it can take months for players to accustom themselves to a new shot and be fearless enough to use it. But Nehwal, he says, if you teach her something, she won’t just use it immediately, “she’ll do it on a big point, maybe the biggest point of the match”.
Stardom infects sports people, distracts them from their purpose; it happens in India. But Nehwal won’t be, she’s different, she just is, her hunger and hardness says so, her winning of a Super Series title after two Grand Prix titles says so. All these are signs.
It will be said to her, when are you going to be No.1, when win an All England, but forget the when, dammit, just look at the now of her. She’s world No.7 in a deeply competitive field of 461 ranked women, one of only two women in the top 10 with no Chinese connection.
Putting down Sania Mirza, a path-breaker in her own right, to praise Saina is unseemly, but it’s okay to ask this: in how many athletic sports does India have a top 10 team/player, male or female. Try none. How’s that for a sign?
Rohit Brijnath is a Senior Correspondent with The Strait Times in Singapore.