Saina Nehwal - New Queen of the Court


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Off court, she is modest and unassuming, but watch her on court and you see a focused and aggressive shuttler who seeks to dominate the world of badminton. She is just two steps from the top and keen to ride her winning streak till she achieves the top spot.

At a time when celebrities are projecting a larger-than-life image, she is one who comes across as the quintessential girl next door. Except, that she isn’t. Saina Nehwal recently won three successive international badminton titles in three weeks to become World No. 3.

Her agility and aggression in playing a game that taxes the mind and the muscle to the hilt has brought her international laurels, but the 20-year-old shuttler is matter of fact when she says: “I need to work hard and focus on the forthcoming events. If I can become World No. 3, I can also become World No. 1.”

Bagging the India Open Grand Prix, Singapore Open and Indonesian Open Super Series titles gives weight to her words. By virtue of these consecutive titles, Saina has notched up 64,791 points on the international chart and is just behind the Chinese duo of Yihan Wang and Xin Wang.

While Chinese domination of the women’s singles is widely accepted, after her win in Singapore, some see Saina as someone who can go right to the top. What did she do after that? She walked the ramp during the Hyderabad Fashion Week, exchanging high heels for sneakers, and is back at the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad for her regular and rigorous practice sessions.

Born in Haryana and brought up in Hyderabad, Saina’s journey has been a saga of grit, determination and an all-consuming passion to excel. Daughter of an agricultural scientist, Saina took to racket at the age of eight when her family moved to Hyderabad and there has been no looking back ever since.

Born on March 17, 1990 at Hisar, Saina started her schooling within the Chaudhary Charan Singh Agricultural University campus. Her father, Harvir Singh, recalls: “She was in third standard when I was transferred. We put her in Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan School here (in Hyderabad) in 1998.”

As a toddler, Saina used to watch her parents play badminton on the Hisar University campus. “I used to play badminton just for fitness but my wife Usha was a district-level player. Saina used to accompany us everyday and keenly observed our game. However, we never imagined that she would one day become a badminton star. It is all God’s grace,” says Singh, who is a principal scientist at the Directorate of Oilseeds Research.

“Initially, she used to talk about her yearning to go back to Hisar and meet her classmates. Very soon, she adjusted top Hyderabad,” he says. Soon, her schoolteachers spotted Saina’s talent and advised her parents to send her for badminton training.

After making Hyderabad their home, Saina’s family sold off their house in Hisar and visits to their home state became few and far between. However, that will now change. “We recently bought a house for Saina in Gurgaon so that she can stay there whenever she has to go to Delhi,” Singh says, although for the sake of their daughter’s career, he and his wife plan to settle down in Hyderabad after his retirement in 2012.

As Saina emerged as a youth icon with a string of achievements, her school made a special gesture by naming a block on campus after her. She fondly recollects the gruelling early days when she would ride pillion on her father’s scooter to the LB Stadium for training. “Till this day, fitness is one thing I am very particular about. I follow an eight-hour practice and fitness regime every day,” says the ace shuttler.

Even after achieving so much professionally, Saina remains grounded to the middle-class values and shuns partying and big-time socialising. “We have tried to inculcate in her the core values of honesty, modesty, integrity and respect for elders,” says her father. She loves watching Shah Rukh Khan’s movies, relishes homemade paranthas and practices a lot.

Asked if she feels proud of her iconic status in Indian sport, Saina says: “I only hope that these good things continue. Yes, definitely, there is a lot more recognition now wherever I go. I am happy with this and I do not want any comparisons.”

During her moments of triumph in the Singapore and Indonesia Opens, was there anything she was missing? “My parents. I would have loved for them to be there,” the champion says.

About her dream run, she says: “I enjoyed all the matches in the three tournaments. I was a bit tired but was confident that I could do it. Finally, I am happy that I have won three titles in a row. Now, I want to win the upcoming tournaments.”

Saina learnt her first moves in badminton under the tutelage of Dronacharya awardee Syed Mohammed Arif. After his retirement, All-England Badminton Championship winner Gopichand took over the mantle of honing Saina’s talents.

“I am lucky to have a coach like Gopichand. I owe my success to him. He has been working hard and guiding me all through,” she says.

Saina won her first senior international title in 2006 -- the Philippines Open -- and then went on to make waves in the Beijing Olympics. “It was certainly a turning point in my career. It gave me confidence to play against big players,” she says.

“The key to Saina’s phenomenal rise is her self-belief. She goes for every match with a belief that she will win. She is a quick learner,” says coach Gopichand. Playing badminton takes incredible stamina and needs very fast reflexes, but Saina is totally focused on two vital aspects -- fitness and commitment to the game. “Chinese players have an edge because of their speed and quickness in retrieval and Saina has to further improve her fitness to beat them,” says Gopichand.

“I just want to make my country proud,” she declares, and settles down to work towards her next goals - the World Championship, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games.

Sports analysts point out that Saina needs to work hard and keep herself injury-free for the next few years to become Numero Uno in badminton, a spot just two crucial steps away.

The queen of the court has set new standards in badminton. Saina has achieved more than any Indian player but there are many challenges ahead. She needs to stay focused on the game, play it aggressively and be ready to beat those considered unbeatable. She has done that, and will need to do it again and again. That’s what world champions do.