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The Shuttle Queen

‘Saina Nehwal, An Inspirational Biography’, the first book on the 22-year old champ, talks about her close ties with her family and coach and looks at what makes her a winner.

books Updated: Jul 07, 2012 19:00 IST
Raghu Krishnan

There’s something about Saina Nehwal; something wholesome and endearing; something middle class and believable; something solid and dependable. She reminds you of the young Sachin, really, with her absolute focus and quiet charm. And like him, the badminton champ seems marked for greatness and for a place in the perennial sunshine that bathes those anointed by the Indian public as worthy of adoration.

Few sportsmen make the grade. The ones who do are usually expert wielders of cricket bats with squeaky clean lives. Lately, the Indian sporting scene with its doping scandals in athletics, the public wars between tennis ‘stalwarts’, and the twisted tragedy of Pinki Pramanik seems straight out of the script of a lurid soap opera.

Against this blotchy backdrop, 22-year-old Saina glides like a pristine bird. Perhaps it’s because of her extreme youth, her no-nonsense air or even her obvious disinterest in appearing vacuously pretty, that this younger daughter of an agricultural scientist and a former state-level badminton player from Haryana hasn’t attracted the kind of intrusive media attention which fellow Hyderabadi, Sania Mirza, has always had to contend with. Of a piece with that, instead of column inches focusing on her love life or her dress sense, Nehwal has an entire biography devoted to her.

Journalist TS Sudhir, formerly of NDTV, whose ‘Saina Nehwal, An Inspirational Biography’ has just been released, says he chose her as his subject because few people know about the details of her life. “She is extremely focused and very disciplined for a girl her age; she is stubborn and has an obsessive hunger to win,” he says adding that he was also impressed by her relationship with her parents and her coach Pullela Gopichand with whom she, apparently, shares the ideal guru-shishya relationship. Since Saina’s father Dr Harvir Singh is a close friend of the author, the family freely shared intimate anecdotes. So the reader learns that Saina’s mother nursed her until she was four-and-a-half years old and that, as an infant, the future three-time Indonesian Open champion and India’s great Olympic hope often laughed raucously as she watched her mother play badminton. Sudhir reveals that Saina, who was named after Shirdi Sai Baba – her name is a truncation of ‘Sainaam’ – continues to be grounded and humble while also having that winning “maar doonga” attitude.

“She has put a shield around her and is focused on the Olympics now,” Sudhir says adding that Saina currently spends 12 hours daily training at the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in her hometown. That’s the sort of detail that will endear her to a public yearning for a spotless next-generation hero worthy of worship, someone who will decimate everything in her path while staying true to her family and her guru… and oh, also maintaining a certain disdain for frou frou fashion. —Manjula Narayan

Exclusive excerpts: Saina’s middle class roots, her supportive parents and her rise to fame

Champions define themselves in their dreams and then work incredibly hard every single day to be successful. It has been no different for Saina Nehwal.

From the age of 12, Saina’s truly big, ambition was to win a medal at the Olympics. It was what the posters held up by her early fans goaded her on to achieve. It was what she believed she could do.

A decade is about how long it takes to mature and become world class, especially if you happen to be the girl next door coming up from nothing.

Along the way there have been many successes, making Saina one of the top players in the world. There was also the Beijing Olympics in 2008 where she came within kissing distance of a medal.

But in all those long hours of training and conditioning, the big matches won and lost, the stage was really being set for the 2012 Olympics in London. This is the first complete story of that epic struggle. It is an exciting record of how a young girl supported by her middle-class parents decided to take on the world. With title wins at the Thailand Open and Indonesia Open, five weeks before the Olympics, Saina is one of India’s strongest medal prospects.

A star is born...

The Hindi news was being broadcast on All India Radio when Dr Harvir Singh’s second child arrived in the world. That is how the father remembers that evening, on 17 March 1990, when Saina Nehwal was born. And adds fondly that it was perhaps a sign to him that the child was herself destined to make headlines in time to come.

It was a week or so after Saina arrived that Usha Rani’s mother came to see the baby and almost a month lapsed before her father’s side of the family visited Hisar from their village. Harvir says, “I had to listen to sarcastic barbs. My mother said, Tu to bulaata bhi nahi hai (You never call us to your home).”

The grandma Controversy

Many years later, a news magazine quoted Saina as saying “her grandmother was not too happy that Harvir and Usha Rani had had a second daughter”. That one of India's most famous and successful daughters, who is now most definitely a youth icon, had been an unwanted girl child, at least for some in the family, was too ironic a symbolism for the media to let it pass. It was picked up widely, magnifying what is accepted in many parts of India as an everyday truth that may not make many realists raise even an eyebrow. But in the world of news, it became a scandalous revelation that underlined the existing gender bias in India.

The family was upset about the unnecessary public embarrassment of an elder of the family. It created fissures in the family. Harvir was told by his brother that it was not fair of Saina to have talked about her late grandmother like this. Harvir agrees the controversy was avoidable. However, open and straightforward as he always is, he points out that in Haryana if the first child is a girl, people are likely to congratulate you, though there won't be a big celebration. But if the second child is also a girl, Harvir says with a laugh, the chances are that the attitude will change to offering solace — “Chalo, koi baat nahin (It doesn’t matter, such things happen).”

Though that has been the social environment in Haryana, Harvir insists that it is not the way his family reacted to Saina's birth. “Two of my brothers already had two sons each by the time Saina was born. So to have two daughters in the family was a blessing. My elder daughter, Abu Chandranshu, was in fact the first girl born in the family after my elder sister.”

Game in the genes

Saina, it would seem, acquired the flair to play badminton from her parents. Both Harvir and Usha are good players and once Chandranshu became a bit older, the couple picked up the racquet again. It helped that the university residential quarters also housed a badminton court and soon the exploits of Usha and Harvir made them a popular sporting couple. A local newspaper, Nabchor Daily, even featured the two after they won the mixed doubles title at a local tournament. But Usha was considered the better player and friends with the intention to tease Harvir challenged him one day to defeat Usha in a match. Harvir agreed to treat them to Campa-Cola (a popular aerated drink in those days) if Usha got the better of him. But realizing the treat will burn a hole in his pocket, Harvir requested Usha to let him win! The wife complied.

First blood

Saina introduction to professional badminton came by chance in December 1998. Harvir, as sports secretary of the Agricultural University, visited the Lal Bahadur Indoor Stadium in Hyderabad to enquire about hiring it for a tournament. The stadium was 25 km from the university, but Saina had gone along. Like all little kids, the precocious side of Saina took over w

First Published: Jul 07, 2012 19:00 IST