It’s a quiet neighbourhood. Luxury cars line driveways of houses. There’s none of the din and bustle of the main road even though it’s around the corner. Suddenly, a shrill bark shatters the silence. A Shitzhu pup tears down the stairs. The pup wags its tail and jumps till you hold out your hand for a lick. “Chopsy likes you,” says Saina Nehwal, smiling. Slightly under the weather, Nehwal’s eyes light up when she sees the quadruped.
At home recovering from fever and an ankle injury, Nehwal is a picture of calm. Wearing one of her numerous India jerseys, the 25-year-old’s handshake is firm. “I’m recovering, thanks, but a bit weak,” she says. The hair is tied up in the usual ponytail and her feet are bare. She reaches for a mug of steaming milk tea as she settles on the sofa. Chopsy comes towards her before deciding to go to her father, Harvir, sitting near the desktop. “I keep running after Chopsy,” she laughs.
Currently based in Bangalore for training, Nehwal’s barely at home. This time round, it’s the Premier Badminton League which has brought her to the city because her team, Awadhe Warriors, was playing.
Trophies won over the years are displayed in the spacious sitting room. While the World Championship silver, Khel Ratna, Denmark Open and China Open trophies, among others, are showcased at the entrance, the 2012 Olympic bronze is tucked away inside the original box. Harvir brings it out and smiles. “I can’t believe how time flies. Since 1999, when she took up badminton, to now everything seems to have gone in the blink of an eye,” he says.
Nehwal’s come off a successful 2015 season. A maiden India Open Super Series win gave her the coveted world No. 1 rank for the first time, she won silver at the World Championships and was runner-up at the All England Championships. Add all this to a 2012 Olympic bronze and it could be enough to satiate an Indian sportsperson.
“I like winning. I like working hard,” is how she scotches such notions. “Even if I win a tournament, I forget it immediately. And then, there’s the next tournament I’m looking forward to. It’s not like I’ve achieved it or I’ll not do it again. I would like to do it as many times as I can. I’m not really thinking of the world No. 1 spot or that I’ve achieved it. I want to achieve it again and again.”
If winning is her motivation, the point now is to become stronger and last the rigours of the circuit. New venues every week, usually in different countries, playing against the same players but often needing different strategies, it can get monotonous, depressing or both.
So, how much of a heartbreak was coming within touching distance of an All England win — only her former coach Pullela Gopichand and Prakash Padukone have achieved — only to be stopped by Carolina Marin? “To be honest, there’s no time to think. We are playing back to back weeks. When you win, you simply forget the other. Before you know it, it’s time for the new season,” says Nehwal shaking her head. “But when you push yourself beyond your limits, you tend to get injuries. Now, I’m working more on my strength. For that, I need to push myself.”
Usha, her mother, is pottering in the kitchen. A former national-level shuttler, it was Usha’s dream that her younger daughter made it in the sport. As the pressure-cooker whistles off steam, Nehwal looks towards her father. “Have you had tea?” she asks.
Rio on mind
There are great expectations on Nehwal. Always. In 2013, when she went through a lull after the high of an Olympic medal, fans went berserk. “There is always pressure on me when I play. But I’ve always kept my mind on training to do well… Work hard and get the best results out, that’s all. I’m happy that I’ve been doing that and not worrying about pressure or any kind of expectation. But yes, sometimes it does play a role when you’re playing at the highest level. But I’m learning to cope with it. I’m no longer that tense when I’m playing tough matches,” she explains as her mobile trills.
For those on the top of their game in Olympic sport, 2016 will be tougher than the years immediately gone by. “It’s all about how you plan your strategy and training. It’s not like you have to kill yourself,” says Nehwal, smiling when the conversation shifts to Rio. Sure, the Games are months away, but “firstly there are two-three injuries I want to get rid off”.
“If I can do something better than that (bronze) this time then it will be a great thing,” she feels. “There are a lot of tough players. A lot of tough competition. I just want to give of my best and stay injury-free.”
Marin’s recent run has been spectacular. Back-to-back World Championship medals and the constant duel between the two to secure the world No. 1 spot. Is she Nehwal’s biggest threat? “Marin, Li Xuerui (London Olympic champion) and Wang Yihan, I think. Actually, all the top 10 players… The Chinese are the toughest opponents out there. Just because they’ve been losing doesn’t mean they’ve gone out. They will be planning a strong comeback. You can never underestimate the Chinese.
“You need to be stronger than them when you play a tournament. Currently, I’m recovering and can’t compare my level with them. I need to play tournaments first and then only I can tell you more.”
Nehwal has a 4-2 head-to-head record against Marin. But the two times she’s lost has been at the finals of the All England and World Championships. What makes the Spaniard stand out? “She’s got very good speed on court. She’s also a very good attacker,” says Nehwal.
Change of coach
Her moving to Bangalore to train with former national coach Vimal Kumar from Gopichand’s academy in Hyderabad was big news. Many felt it was a phase, having left Gopi some years earlier albeit briefly. But they’ve been proved wrong.
“Gopi Sir and Vimal Sir are both hardworking. The only thing that is good for me now is Vimal Sir takes care of only me. He’s able to give me the extra time, the extra thing which I require. To be on top of the world, you need to have something good for your game to be better than others. You can’t train with 10-20 of them and get the same quality. That’s what I’m doing with him. I want my training schedule to be a secret till the Olympics but I’m working one-on-one.”
So, is she working on any specific area? “Don’t think I’m weak in any area… With my speed, I don’t feel any major issue. It’s just that some areas, maybe at the net, where I need to work on my strokes a lot more.”
While friendships have bloomed on the circuit over the years, Nehwal has always stayed away from the pack. She’s happy to be part of a bunch of young shuttlers in the world’s top 30 but prefers being alone.
“I don’t make friends at all. There’s no time to make friends, sit down have a chat... I’ve always been that kind of person… alone. My mother or father used to travel with me,” she recollects. As Chopsy comes towards her, she adds: “I have one or two friends, that too boys. I’ve been with them since childhood. Otherwise, I hardly have friends outside; you can ask my dad (looks at him). Chopsy is my friend.” She gazes lovingly at her pet.
From three cars in the driveway to nearly every possible trophy one can dream of, Nehwal has it. But her dreams are made of different stuff. That’s why, despite her health condition, she drives off to keep an appointment with the physiotherapist. Rio will be a major point in her badminton journey, but Nehwal has many more dreams to achieve.