Andre Agassi, an eight-time Grand Slam winner, called tennis a lonely game. “In tennis you stand face-to-face with the enemy, trade blows with him, but never touch him or talk to him, or anyone else. The rules forbid a tennis player from even talking to his coach while on the court...,” he wrote in his autobiography, Open.
It holds true for badminton players, too, though the rules are not as strict. And, Saina Nehwal braved this loneliness to become the world No 1; the first Indian woman shuttler to do so.
It is no mean feat in a game which had been dominated by the Chinese. And, it came at the heels of Saina's first ever India Open victory. “The world No 1 ranking means so much to me and the win at the India Open is the icing on the cake,” she posted on Facebook from Malaysia, where she is playing the Malaysia Open Superseries Premier. “The support of the fans was amazing. I'm very thankful to the BAI [Badminton Association of India], my coaches, physios and support staff who work so hard behind the scenes.”
Unlike most sports stars who thrive on India's obsession with celebrities, Saina is anything but a celebrity. Despite an Arjuna award, a Padma Shri, an Olympic bronze medal and now the world No 1 status, the shuttler remains uncomplicated, much like the way she plays the game. A victory, however big it is, does not change anything about her life. She has not employed a manager; her father, Harvir Singh Nehwal, still manages her life outside the court. The Padma Shri she won in 2010 remained unrolled in her house for a long time. Harvir says there is nothing in their house, not even a photograph of her receiving medals, that displays her achievements.
Saina, who turned 25 in March, trains six days a week and spends her Sundays at home with parents. “She might go out for a movie or shopping with her mother on Sundays,” said Harvir. She does not celebrate her birthdays or throw parties. The Nehwals celebrated her world No 1 status at home with “ghar ka khana―roti and dal”, before Saina left for Malaysia.
If 2015 looks like the best year in her career, she had her worst in 2013. Some critics even saw her bronze at the London Olympics 2012 as fortuitous, as Wang Xin, her Chinese opponent, retired owing to a knee injury. But, they chose to ignore the fact that even Saina was not fully fit while playing at the Olympics. She was down with a fever for weeks before leaving for London. “I was on antibiotics and was feeling very tired. But, I had worked so hard to reach there, I couldn't go down without a fight,” she said in an interview with THE WEEK. “My opponent [Wang Xin] and I were playing a long rally, of 30-32 strokes, when I saw her go down. She had a long discussion with her coach and physio and, finally, I saw her going off the court.”
From the day Saina started her career on May 1, 1999, a day etched into her mind, the game has been everything for her. She says she does not even remember how she grew up. And, it is not just with her physical capabilities or technical prowess that she takes on the formidable Chinese players; her willpower, say analysts, is enormous. “Even as a child, she was capable of doing anything that she put her mind to,” said Harvir.
It is her will power that helped her bounce back from career-threatening injuries. The year 2013 was particularly bad. A toe fracture kept her off court for six weeks and an upset stomach failed her in the BWF World Championships. “That year was torture,” she said. “I was repeatedly being beaten by the top three players, and I did not win any title.” And, constant comparisons with the rising star P.V. Sindhu did not help, either. While Saina ended 2013 without any major win, Sindhu won the Malaysia Open Grand Prix and a bronze in the prestigious World Championships.
Desperate times called for desperate measures, and Saina decided to change her game. She left her long-time coach Pullela Gopichand for U. Vimal Kumar, a former national champion and former national chief coach. This led to the rumours of a rift between Gopichand and Saina. She says the move was purely for professional reasons. “In most countries, when a player reaches a certain level, she starts getting personal attention,” she said. “In India, this system does not exist. But I felt like I needed to change the way I was training, because I had not been doing anything differently. I needed personal attention and both my coach and I needed to analyse not only my game, but also that of my opponents.”
Studying the opponents matters a lot at this level of the game. The Chinese, for instance, play with machine-like accuracy and speed but lack the imagination of European players. Also, the Chinese have been successfully applying the strategy of playing as a team and targeting non-Chinese players in major tournaments. This is one reason Saina has a comparatively poor record against most Chinese players. While she enjoys a favourable record against players like Tine Baun of Denmark (5-4), Juliane Schenk of Germany (8-4), Carolina Marin of Spain (3-1) and Ratchanok Inthanon of Thailand (5-3), it is 2-7 against Li Xuerui, 2-8 against Wang Yihan and 0-5 against Jiang Yanjiao.
“Chinese players are usually the strongest competitors,” said Saina. “So beating them has given my confidence a great boost. It felt particularly good to win the China Open. One of my goals is to stay injury-free as much as possible, and another is to beat the Chinese players as much as possible.” She has spoken against the Chinese dominance on many occasions. Last year, she called to limit the number of Chinese women singles players in international tournaments. But the Badminton World Federation ruled out any immediate changes in the rules.
Vimal Kumar helped Saina step up her game by focusing on the most crucial part―fitness. Now, her time and energy are focused on perfecting the game and building strength. “I spend about three and a half hours doing on-court training in the mornings. I practise all aspects of the game, and it is quite rigourous, with rallies lasting 45 minutes to an hour,” she said. The evenings are spent on off-court training. “I do a lot of running, different forms of endurance training, agility exercises,” she said. “My trainers decide what I do on a day-to-day basis. So one day, it might be strength training, where I'll work on my core or legs or arms, and the next day, it could be interval training.”
The year 2014 turned out be much better than the previous one. “I finally started beating the same people to whom I was losing in straight sets in 2013,” said Saina. “By the time I won the China Open, I could see how much my strokes were improving.” The No 1 rank might be the culmination of all the hard work. But Saina almost created history in England a month ago, when she lost a tight final at the All England Championship, the sport's oldest event, to Marin. Saina had a clear advantage against the Spaniard, whom she had beaten in all three meetings earlier. But the crafty Marin, who stuck to her attacking game, bounced back when Saina lost steam midway during the final. “I began to hurry my shots and I made errors,” Saina said after the match.
Sacrifices for her game are nothing new to Saina. Perhaps, the biggest one she had to make was to turn non-vegetarian to meet her nutritional requirements. A Jat, she was brought up a vegetarian and she first ate non-vegetarian food when she was 15. This finds mention in journalist T.S. Sudhir's book, An Inspirational Biography―Saina Nehwal. On the Chinese New Year in 2005 in Hangzhou, her now legendary obedience was tested when Gopichand asked her to eat fish and crab. The story goes that she wolfed it all down without any protest.
Saina says her badminton journey started when she was in her mother's womb. Both her parents were badminton players, and her mother, Usha Rani, played even during her pregnancy. She was born in Hisar, Haryana. “I was taken every day to the badminton hall as a baby,” Saina said. Her talent was spotted by P.N.S.S. Prasad Rao, who was badminton coach at Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh, when she was eight.
A lot of Saina's success can be attributed to the unwavering determination of her parents to see her play to her potential. “Initially, my friends used to say that I was foolish to expect the child to become anything in a competitive sport like badminton,” said Harvir. “But I gave her a racquet instead of books and she proved my conviction right.”
Usha Rani accompanies Saina to Bengaluru, where she has been training for the past seven months. Sania had dedicated her Olympic medal to her mother. “Winning the Olympic medal was special because I made my mother's dream come true by doing so,” she said. “Ever since I was a child, she used to say that she wanted to see me win a medal at the Olympics and I'm so happy that she could see me do so.”
Harvir cites Saina's success as an example of the need for parents respecting their children's inclination and encouraging them in their pursuits. “Be with them,” he said. “You can garner 100 per cent result by just being the force that they need.” It also means making some sacrifices. “My wife and I have been away from each other for many months. I have been making my own meals,” said Harvir. But it hardly sounded like a complaint.