By T S Sudhir
“Himmat se khelo, jeetoge” (Play courageously and you will win) is an advice Dr Harvir Singh usually gives to his daughter, before she embarks on her international tournaments. `Grit’ in any case, is like the middle name of his daughter, who goes by the name Saina Nehwal, the number 3 women singles player in the world of badminton.
That native wisdom delivered in chaste Haryanvi Hindi has played its part in propelling Saina into the finals of the All-England championship in Birmingham, UK. Perhaps that simple advice is all you need in between the cacophony of racquets hitting the shuttles on practise courts in foreign land and the steady advice from the coach, “hit deep, rush to the net, prolong the rallies, kill shuttle”. “Papa, don’t preach” is not a line Saina Nehwal ever says.
Back home in Hyderabad, Harvir Singh believes that Saina vanquishing Wang Yihan, her nemesis in many tournaments since the junior world cup in South Korea in 2006, is a good sign. Before All-England, Yihan held a 8-1 record against Saina. “She has always got the better of Saina. The win over Yihan will do Saina’s self-confidence a world of good,” he says.
After defeating Yihan to enter the semi-finals, Saina climbed another summit on March 7, becoming the first Indian woman to reach the finals of this prestigious event, a title considered on par with the world championship. If she wins the finals today against world champion Carolina Marin of Spain, Saina will end a 14 year vanvaas (exile) from the All-England podium. Her former guru, Pullela Gopichand was the last Indian to win the title in 2001, the first being Prakash Padukone in 1980.
It will be an important title to win for Saina, who with her 3-0 record against Marin, will fancy her chances. Since she split with Gopi last year and moved to Bengaluru to train with former national champion Vimal Kumar, there have been doubts expressed if it was a sensible move. Gopichand’s academy in Hyderabad is India’s premier badminton gurukul, whose conveyer belt has produced several world beaters in the last decade. Saina’s decision was dictated by the fact that Gopi has only 24 hours on his watch and with many players demanding his attention and time, she felt the need for a coach who would be focused solely on improving her game.
In hindsight, this has proven a masterstroke. Gopi had done something similar during his playing days, shifting from coach S M Arif in Hyderabad to Bengaluru to train under Ganguly Prasad. Perhaps history has its way of making a point.
In 2001, Gopi had followed a familiar pattern through All-England which included eating roti, tandoori chicken and dal everyday at the same restaurant, listening only to M S Subbulakshmi’s Bhaja Govindam and Vishnu Sahasranamam on his walkman and staying away from reading newspapers or calling folks back home in India. Saina is in the same mould, whose world is the badminton court.
Saina who faltered in the semis at the All-England in 2010 and 2013, would reckon this is her best chance to win the title. She is a big match player who will be inspired by the boisterous Indian crowd that will root for her in the arena. Gopichand’s triumph inspired an entire generation of youngsters to take to badminton. Saina’s feat will have a multiplier effect.
The last week has seen a furious debate in the country over the ban on `India’s daughter’, produced by BBC. Today the world will watch as another one of India’s daughters lets her racquet do the talking in Britain.
(T S Sudhir is the author of Saina Nehwal’s biography, published in July 2012)