(Photo courtesy : P Anil Kumar)
By T S Sudhir
For a week starting tomorrow, Saina Nehwal can imagine herself to be Kaka, Messi, Maradona or whoever her favourite football star is. Her coach Pullela Gopichand’s diktat to her is to play football and give her badminton racquets some rest. While his idea is to energise his ward after three gruelling back-to-back tournaments, all of which she won, it also symbolically conveys the message. That the top honours of world badminton are at Saina’s feet. Within striking distance, quite literally.
Flying Jakarta-Singapore-Chennai-Hyderabad to bring back home her clutch of three gold medals, Saina is the new Hyderabadi hurricane, who threatens to blow away Chinese domination of the sport. Three victories in three weeks have pushed her ranking up three places to world number 3. But ranking is just a state of mind and it rests lightly on her shoulders.
“It is important for me to work hard and win the tournaments rather than focussing on rankings because if you play well, you go up and if you don’t, you go down. So for me, it is important that I win tournaments, devote time to training. I am sure that if I can reach number 3 spot, I can also become world number 1.”
That sense of detachment perhaps comes from the origin of her name. Her dad Dr Harvir Singh tells me `Saina’ came from `Sai-naam’. Though her nickname is the more sporty `Steffi’. That’s because when as a six-year-old, she used to accompany her parents, both quality badminton players, to the courts, her hairstyle reminded people of Steffi Graf. As an emotional Dr Harvir Singh said today, “She may be world number 3 today but to me she is still my bachcha, my Steffi. I still call her by this name.”
To Saina goes the credit of putting the name of her village, Nehwal in Haryana, on the world map. No wonder, her hattrick was followed by congratulatory phone calls from the chief ministers of both Andhra Pradesh and Haryana.
Incidentally, when the family moved in 1998 from Haryana to Hyderabad, 8-year-old Saina first enrolled for judo and karate. It was a year later that badminton coach and Dronacharya award winner S M Arif spotted her talent and predicted that in three years, Saina will play the Nationals. Saina did not disappoint Arif Sir ; she had 16 singles and doubles titles to boast of, before she was 12.
Saina’s success has spawned a badminton revolution in India. Proof of that can be found in Gopichand’s academy in Hyderabad, home to 110 players, among them Gopi’s 7-year-old daughter Gayatri and 5-year-old son Sai Vishnu. Gopi’s wife and former India player P V V Lakshmi says the infrastructure, coaching standards and exposure have made a huge difference to the success of players like Saina.
“During my days, we used to play three tournaments in a year. These players play some 12 to 15. Unlike the rickety machines in our time, now the facilities available for physiotherapy are world-class. It makes all the difference,” says Lakshmi.
For the moment, Saina is making all the difference. Like Vishwanathan Anand, Sachin Tendulkar and Sania Mirza before her in their sport, Saina has created a sensational buzz around badminton. And unlike some youngsters, who find it difficult to handle the fame and the glory, frittering away all the goodwill and good advice, Saina has so far displayed an even keel.
“Her USP is her `never give up’ attitude,” says Gopi. “She was like this when she was ranked 100 and now when she is 3. We had planned that she should be in the top 10 by end of 2009. She was number 6 by August last year. Similarly, we thought she should aim to be in the top 5 by end of 2010. She has beaten that deadline again by six months.”
Which should be incentive enough for Saina to sit back and spend some quality time with her family, especially her sister Chandranshu, who also plays volleyball. She has three big tournaments coming up in 2010. The world championship in August in Paris, followed by the Delhi Commonwealth Games and the Asiad.
The only weakness in Saina’s SWOT analysis is academics with Saina yet to finish her +2 exam. But papa is not complaining.
“Saina must be the only student who though has not finished her +2, goes to her school as the chief guest instead !!”
You can also find T S Sudhir’s blogs at http://www.thesouthreports.com