Saina, not Sania


By T S Sudhir I remember when I did my first television story on Saina Nehwal in November 2005, I titled it `Saina, not Sania’. Those days, Sania was the name that sold and well. Saina’s almost identical name to the then Hyderabadi hurricane came in handy to conjure many a catchy line. When I look back at that story’s title now, it seems almost prophetic. As if by cruel coincidence, around the same time Sania tumbled out of Wimbledon first round, Saina was setting the world of badminton on fire with three back-to-back wins in 15 days. In those three Sundays, her ranking moved from world number 6 to 3 and a week or so after that, she became the second best badminton player in the world. Any visitor to Hyderabad these days invariably pops the question : Will Saina go the Sania way? Already her brand equity is moving northwards. Before her number 3 spot, Saina charged about 6 lakh rupees per endorsement. That figure shot up 500 per cent, post her Indonesian Open win, to 30 lakh. Now at number 2, her managers have the opportunity to push that figure up even more, perhaps even a crore. Rougly a dozen companies want Saina to sign on the dotted line. That is of course, still less than what Sania used to charge. At the peak of her career, Ms Mirza was worth 1-2 crore rupees per endorsement and was the face of some of the best brands. Today the world number 142 is worth some 15 lakh rupees per endorsement and many of the biggies have not bothered to renew their contracts with her. But it is not about brand equity alone. Unlike Sania who was as comfortable on a tennis court as she was on page 3 or cheering Sachin Tendulkar and Shoaib Malik in a cricket stadium, Saina knows only one route in life. Home to badminton academy and back. Middle class as it may sound, that helps. Like an Arjuna, this 2009 Arjuna award winner and now the 2010 Rajiv Khel Ratna award winner, sees nothing else apart from an Olympic gold and a World championship title. So far, even the harsh lights of the media glare haven’t affected her focus. And I hope it stays that way. Since Sania and Saina are as different from each other as chalk from cheese, it becomes fashionable to pull Sania down while praising Saina. Which is unfair. As much as people may like to indulge in Sania-bashing, the fact remains that she burst on the sports scene when India badly needed a woman sporting icon. Sania with her looks and a world ranking of 27 was the role model young girls wanted to emulate. Till things started going horribly wrong. A spate of injuries, an attitude that thought nothing of snubbing people in public, something many senior sports journalists have cribbed about, along with the Muslim clergy issuing fatwas at the drop of a hat on everything to do with her, be it her short skirts or shooting at the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad, didn’t help. Sania’s refusal to play in Bangalore in 2008 was seen as an insult to the people of this country, who loved her and wanted her to win on home turf. And the hullabaloo over her marriage to cricketer Shoaib Malik, after cancelling the engagement to Sohrab Mirza, was like the last straw. For the common public, known to pull down celebs, Sania had become more a butt of jokes than admiration. The pin-up girl was now used for dart practise. What will help Saina in contrast, are her roots. Her parents are critical to her remaining grounded. Just like her agricultural scientist father Dr Harvir Singh hasn’t changed his attitude, even as the ranking of his bachcha (or Steffi as he calls her) has gone up, coach Pullela Gopichand reminds her rankings are just a state of mind. The number matters little once Saina steps on court. On the contrary, as Saina says, it may only fire her lesser-ranked opponent to do better. In another two weeks, Saina will fly to Paris for the world championship as the captain of the Indian team. “No, no, it is not a huge responsibility,” she smiles. “I will only tell my teammates to focus and play well. My concern will be my matches.” But while Saina accepted the captain’s role, she politely declined the job of a DSP with Haryana police. Saina who hails from Nehwal village in Haryana, is employed with Bharat Petroleum. And in any case, a danda in a hand used to wielding a racquet won’t look too good, would it ! But Saina did not say no, when organisers of the Hyderabad Fashion Week wished to turn her into a bride and walk the ramp. “I enjoyed it. I am open to walking it again if approached. But yes, I was definitely more nervous walking on the ramp than I am before a match.” When inquisitive journalists keen to put a number on the worth of Saina’s brand equity kept asking her to dish out some figures, Saina was as graceful as she is on court. “I don’t really know Sir,” she smiled throughout. “My job is only to play”. Choosing the drop shot over the smash is a smart strategy that Saina’s dad says comes naturally to her. She uses her innocent charm to win friends, she is not in the race to prove she is the smartest. Neither in the way she speaks, nor in her T-shirts. Not that Saina doesn’t speak her mind. But she does it gracefully. Does she share with Gopi his aversion to endorse soft drinks, I ask. Gopi had refused to endorse aerated drinks at the peak of his career, saying they are not good for health. Saina laughs and doesn’t make an attempt to be politically correct. “Well, I also drink colas at times, so why not? Today’s generation wants to drink everything. Gopi Sir took a very brave decision because he believes if we do anything, the public follows. I don’t see it that way that if I drink, others will also start drinking it.” Saina will walk into the arena in the world championship this year as one of the strong contenders to win the title. This time last year, a bout of chicken pox before the world championship in Hyderabad affected her preparation for the big ticket tournament. For all you know, that may have given her the immunity against defeat this time round. You can also find T S Sudhir’s blogs at http://www.thesouthreports.com/ (Please post your comment to tell us what you thought of this blog. You can also subscribe to this blogsite to receive regular updates)

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About t s sudhir & uma sudhir

Uma Sudhir and T S Sudhir are senior journalists, based in Hyderabad. Both work for NDTV. Uma is a Tamilian, who was educated in
This entry was posted in Andhra Pradesh, Saina Nehwal, Sports and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Saina, not Sania

  1. gps says:

    I think its not right worthy to criticize Sania we shud still accept
    that Sania was stepping stone for tennis tourneys and girls making
    tennis as their career. The other activities are her personal where she
    needs her privacy.

    Saina has been focusing on the Bulls eye and we wish her to be just focused on
    the bulls eye. Good Luck to both Sania and Saina

  2. Rajeshwari Kalyanam says:

    The pin-up girl was now used for dart practice:)
    True. And I also agree that she came down the wrong way., yet she had taken the mantle of a woman sports icon when India badly needed it and a lot of young tennis players of the day have drawn inspiration from her. I think we must forget and forgive her and cheer our Saina and hope she stays the way she is…for her own sake.

  3. Nandini Roy Choudhuri says:

    A pleasure to read ! but
    I think it is unfair to compair them. Afterall she was the first ever Indian to break into the top 50 WTA rankings. that alone is reason enough to forgive all her mistakes(or misfortune). And the younger ones always learns from their elders mistakes.
    I too wish Good Luck to both Sania and Saina.

  4. A very well written article for the right time. I gotta agree with the blogger on Sania’s rise & fall. Personally, like many I have never liked the wrong attitude that Sania possessed (or still possessing?) Does Malabar Gold Press meet rings a bell? There was also a considerable over hyping on her by the media (English in particular) for a long time (despite she had already past her best) that eventually lead to her downfall.

    I just hope and wish that Saina does not end up like Sania, and goes further higher makes our country proud.

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