World No 1 Saina Nehwal's victory is not hers alone

As the young player cherishes the moment, she would do well to look back at the journey that began almost by accident.

 |  4-minute read |   30-03-2015
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Vimal Kumar could well have been an astrologer. In May 2006, when Saina Nehwal won her first big international title - the Philippines Open - under Pullela Gopichand's tutelage, Vimal called Saina's attitude "special'', adding, "She has tremendous self-belief. She wasn't satisfied with just beating the world number four in the world but went for the title. Most other players win a few good matches but never the title. If she keeps up the momentum, Saina can break into the world's top ten sooner than one expects."

Vimal's words were prophetic. Saina took just four years to move from the 86th rank into the top ten. And five years to make that tougher journey from world number eight (in January 2010) to world number 1 in March 2015. And perhaps it was only apt that Vimal, her present coach, was by her side when Saina stood on the Mt Everest of world badminton rankings.

Even as Saina pinched herself hard to believe this is for real, Vimal, the perfect gentleman that he is, paid tribute to Saina's previous coaches who had made this possible. Pullela Gopichand, SM Arif and Goverdhan Reddy. Everyone has had a significant role to play in making Saina's arduous trek to the top, a success story.

As Saina cherishes the moment, she would do well to look back at the journey that began almost by accident. A chance trip to the Lal Bahadur indoor stadium in Hyderabad in December 1998 with her father who had gone there to seek permission to organise a badminton tournament for scientists at his Agricultural institute. Saina started playing with the racquets kept on the side and something about the way she held the racquet, caught the eye of badminton coach, the late PSS Nani Prasad Rao.

Nani Prasad, Goverdhan and Arif taught Saina the basics of badminton. That was the time when she would carry her text books along with her to tournaments outside Hyderabad. At the age of 12, Saina would tell fellow players like Shruti Kurien that she wanted to be the first Indian girl to win the All-England title and also become a doctor.

That she was physically a tough kind was apparent. Arif used to make Saina "do double practice like a boy because she was used to a higher workload''. The coaches were also very protective about young Saina, who they thought had it in her to be a world-beater. Goverdhan for instance, would make sure he kept Saina away from senior players who had toured abroad. "At that time, the mindset among Indian players was that foreigners could never be beaten and so all talk would be in that frame of mind. I would keep Saina away from them.''

When you see how Saina in recent years, has breached the Chinese wall, you realise the significant role small steps like these played in moulding an impressionable mind.

Like most sportspersons, Saina too struggled to balance her study and game time. But the world conspires to make good things happen. Saina's school principal Satyanarayana Raju offered a solution before the class 10 board exams in 2005. He told her father, Dr Harvir Singh, "Your daughter is not coming to school. But she is a gem, we know. What I will do is to send every teacher to your home so that she knows all the lessons.''

Once Saina moved to training with Gopichand a decade ago, she was obsessively monitored. India's quest for an Olympic medal in badminton had moved to the next gear with Gopi keeping a sharp eye on Saina's daily regimen, diet, sleep and of course, strategy on court. "She is like a daughter. I believe that you cannot excel at the highest level if after ten hours of badminton, you spend the remaining 14 hours doing other things which harm your game,'' Gopi told me in 2012.

Saina moved to Bangalore last year because she realised she needed specialised attention, something Gopi perhaps with the demands of 150 players at his academy in Hyderabad and his role as India's national coach, wasn't able to give. The gamble, which had come in for criticism that time, has paid off. Saina's work ethic, influenced by the many men and women who have stepped into her life at different stages, is impeccable. And her focus, always sharp.

It helped that both her parents were badminton players in their younger days. In fact, Harvir Singh says, "Her mother was an exceptionally talented badminton player. Even now, people who saw Usha Rani play in Hisar remember her flicks, the way she would move her wrist. Saina has got her mother's stamina but I would say Usha is still better in skill.''

With the world number one title in her kitty, Harvir Singh's daughter is compelling him to change his opinion on her skills.

(TS Sudhir is the author of Saina Nehwal's biography, published in July 2012)

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TS Sudhir TS Sudhir @iamtssudhir

The writer is a journalist.

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