SAINA NE­HWAL WORLD No.1

She is unas­sum­ing, charm­ing and forth­right. In a hap­pier space af­ter be­com­ing the top-ranked women's bad­minton player in the world, the gritty champ tells us why she wants to be the Shah Rukh khan of her field

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - Front Page - text by Aasheesh Sharma photos by Raj K Raj

On Septem­ber 17, when Saina Ne­hwal posted pic­tures on Twit­ter pos­ing with Shah Rukh Khan, it wasn’t any other 25-year-old bask­ing in a fan-girl mo­ment. It was a feel­ing Saina rel­ished as much as she loves win­ning a tour­na­ment. For a few hours, she stopped act­ing as the num­ber one bad­minton player in the world and held on to ev­ery word the Bad­shah of Bol­ly­wood was say­ing. “When I heard that he was shoot­ing in Hy­der­abad for

Dil­wale, I tweeted whether I could meet him. It was re­ally nice of him to spend time with me and let me watch the shoot­ing,” she gushes, as she set­tles down for an in­ter­view with Brunch at the rooftop café of the Tata Padukone Bad­minton Academy in Ban­ga­lore.

Now this wasn’t the first time Saina was in­ter­act­ing with an A-list celebrity. Aamir Khan is one of her big­gest sup­port­ers and Sachin Ten­dulkar rou­tinely speaks to her when she is in In­dia. What’s so spe­cial about meet­ing SRK? “I iden­tify with him. I want to be the Shah Rukh Khan of bad­minton!” says Saina, who re­cently re­gained the top spot in women’s sin­gles in the Bad­minton World Fed­er­a­tion rank­ings. “Like Shah Rukh sir, who con­quered the world of movies com­ing from an or­di­nary, non-film fam­ily, I too want to ex­cel in my cho­sen field. My fam­ily too didn’t have any big con­nec­tion with bad­minton. But to­day, like him, I can say, I am the best,” she de­clares, ful­too filmi style.

One can al­most hear the nasal twang with which SRK said: “Don’t un­der­es­ti­mate the power of a com­mon man!” in Chen­nai

Ex­press. That’s the ex­tra­or­di­nary nice­ness of be­ing Saina Ne­hwal. She may have inked a 25-crore endorsement deal with sports man­age­ment group, IOS Sports & En­ter­tain­ment on the back of re­tain­ing the top rank­ing, but her suc­cess story be­gan in or­di­nary, mid­dle-class sur­round­ings.

A TALE OF TWO CITIES

The year was 1999. The evening sun was mak­ing way for the harsh LED lights of Hy­der­abad’s Lal Ba­hadur Shas­tri Sta­dium. In the court­side area, DronacharyaAward-win­ning coach SM Arif was urg­ing stu­dents to com­plete one fi­nal ses­sion of fit­ness drills, be­fore they called it a day. “Even as many trainees were groan­ing about their limbs, one nine-yearold, sweat run­ning down her T-shirt, was ask­ing me if she could

ex­er­cise some more. That gritty girl has be­come the world’s best bad­minton player. Ea­ger to work harder than oth­ers on skills as well as fit­ness, Saina never wanted to stop ex­er­cis­ing,” re­mem­bers Arif about his pro­tégé.

A mix of run­ning, weight train­ing, bad­minton drills and on­court ex­er­cises, Saina’s work­out regime at one time bor­dered on gru­elling. But she loved it. “That’s what makes me happy. As a child, Arif sir helped strengthen my en­durance lev­els. When I moved to the in­ter­na­tional stage, I was lucky that I went to Gopi sir [Pul­lela Gopic­hand] at the right time and now I am for­tu­nate to move to Ban­ga­lore and train with Vi­mal sir [Vi­mal Ku­mar], who has helped me be­come num­ber one.”

Since she shifted base to Ban­ga­lore last year, in a move that up­set fans of Gopic­hand, Saina has been on a hot win­ning streak. Apart from be­com­ing the top player in the world, Saina won the China Open and the In­dia Open Su­per Se­ries, reached the fi­nals of the All Eng­land Cham­pi­onships and the fi­nal of the World Cham­pi­onships. “I am at a hap­pier place in my life. When I was in Hy­der­abad, there wasn’t much im­prove­ment af­ter a point. I was a lit­tle up­set with the way I was play­ing. I was los­ing to Chi­nese play­ers Li Xuerui, Wang Yi­han and Wang Shix­ian quite regularly. I could ei­ther have sat there wait­ing for myy time to come or done some­thing to im­prove my game. Be­ing a player, youu need to be self­ish at times. I want to win for my coun­try.y. Luck­ily for me, Vi­mal sir was there at the World Cham­pi­onships in Copenhagen. He told me I was good but I would have to play much bet­ter in or­der to beat the top play­ers con­sis­tently.”

Once you reachh rar­efied lev­els of sport, no ath­lete can rely sim­ply on the coach’s in­struc­tions, says Vi­mal Ku­mar. They need to move away from the Asian (read Chi­nese) model of train­ing, where the stu­dent sim­ply fol­lows what the coach says with­out ask­ing ques­tions. “To­day, Saina has much greater say in terms of her train­ing and on-court ses­sions,” says Ku­mar. “I’ve been en­cour­ag­ing her to put forth her views. Now she dis­cusses a lot of her ideas with me and we for­mu­late the train­ing ses­sions on that ba­sis. She seems to be en­joy­ing the process,” says the sea­soned coach.

The first thing that Ku­mar told her when she shifted to Ban­ga­lore was that Saina had to re­gain her con­fi­dence, quick. “Over a pe­riod of two months, I be­gang for­get­tinggg the losses

to all these play­ers and started beat­ing them again to re­claim my con­fi­dence. And noth­ing gives me more hap­pi­ness than win­ning,” says Saina.

So ob­sessed is Saina about win­ning and rep­re­sent­ing In­dia that she puts away life’s sim­ple plea­sures if they hap­pen to clash with the game. She of­ten skips her birth­day cel­e­bra­tions in March as they co­in­cide with a tour­na­ment in Europe. She can’t re­mem­ber the last time she cel­e­brated her birth­day with her loved ones. “What’s so spe­cial about a birth­day? Like army of­fi­cers who serve the na­tion, if I do well for In­dia on my birth­day, I feel nice. In 2011, when I won the Swiss Open fi­nal on my birth­day, it be­came a spe­cial mo­ment.”

Men­tal tough­ness and tak­ing plea­surep in work­ing hard could wellwe be the leit­mo­tif of the Saina story.sto Ask Sports Au­thor­ity of In­di­aInd coach Bhaskar Babu about whatwh im­pressed him about Saina as a ju­nior and he says it was her am­bi­tion.am “She kept talk­ing about howho she could beat play­ers ranked muchmu higher. And then she went aheadah and did just that. Also the rolerol of her par­ents in en­sur­ing thattha Saina stayed sin­cere in her pur­suitpu can’t be overem­pha­sised.”

Babu re­calls how Saina’s fa­ther­fat Harvir, an agri­cul­tural

BACK FROM THE EDGE

Saina fa­mously re­alised the dream at Lon­don 2012, in the process, be­com­ing the first In­dian bad­minton player to win an Olympic medal. Since then, af­ter at­tain­ing the num­ber two rank­ing, her game be­gan to slide and at one point in 2014, she was even con­tem­plat­ing quit­ting the game. “Any player will feel bad if they lose con­tin­u­ously. In par­tic­u­lar, the world cham­pi­onship losses were hurt­ing me [she lost five times in the quar­ter-fi­nal stage be­fore mak­ing it to the fi­nal in 2015]. Ex­celling in sin­gles is very dif­fi­cult to achieve. You need lots of phys­i­cal strength and quick re­flexes,” says Saina.

But that is ex­actly what Saina is known for, af­firms eight-time na­tional sin­gles cham­pion and present-day coach Mad­hu­mita Bisht. “Most times when Saina en­gages her ri­vals in long ral­lies, her fit­ness helps her out­last them. Since the time I’ve been with the sci­en­tist, used to drive 25 kilo­me­tres on his scooter to drop her for morn­ing prac­tice. When she be­gan trav­el­ling to small towns in Andhra Pradesh to par­tic­i­pate in tour­na­ments, her mother Usha Rani would ac­com­pany her and en­sure her diet was never com­pro­mised. “Even at smaller venues, I would search for a juice ven­dor and made sure I kept a glass on the court­side if she was play­ing a match. I would also en­sure she had her glass of milk twice ev­ery day,” says Usha Rani.

It was her mom, who has rep­re­sented Haryana in bad­minton, who first put the idea of win­ning an Olympic medal into nine-year-old Saina’s head. “We knew that if she kept her fo­cus, she would make the na­tion proud at the Olympics one day. It was a dream her fa­ther and I dreamt for Saina,” says Usha Rani.

Shift­ing from Hy­der­abad to Ban­ga­lore and train­ing un­der Vi­mal Ku­mar has worked out beau­ti­fully for Saina

When she met Shah Rukh Khan re­cently in Hy­der­abad, Saina en­joyed her fan-girl mo­ment to the hilt

It was her mother Usha Rani who first put the idea of win­ning an Olympic medal into nine-yearold Saina’s head

team, one can­not but ap­pre­ci­ate her men­tal tough­ness that helped her beat Chi­nese play­ers with such h reg­u­lar­ity that the slo­gan Saina ver­sus China was coined,” adds Bisht.

Once her train­ing needs are taken care of, Saina can fo­cus on im­prov­ing her court move­ment and de­vel­op­ing new strokes. But it is far from easy, even for a world-beater, she says. “I am not a nat­u­rally gifted player. I have to work harder on my shots and de­vel­op­ing new strokes and us­ing them in matches. But it is eas­ier with some­one like Vi­mal sir in myy cor­ner. He comes pre­pared with a per­son­alised plan for my train­ing ev­ery day,” she says.

FAVOURITE FOES

Of late, los­ing to Carolina Marin of Spain in the fi­nals of two im­por­tant tour­na­ments (the All Eng­land and the World Cham­pi­onships), has brought some crit­i­cism Saina’s way. But she isn’t fazed. “It is part of a sportsper­son’s life. I can’t say when I will play Carolina next. But I’ll def­i­nitely do some­thing to im­prove my record when I meet her. It is a good ri­valry and she is do­ing ex­tremely well. I hope I im­prove even more and beat her.”

Along with Marin, Saina con­sid­ers Li Xuerui and Wang Yi­han of China among g her tough­est op­po­nents. How w does she stay ahead of the curve in the age of video analy­ses and ri­val coaches bent on sort­ing play­ers out? “You never know when you will go down again or emerge on top. But the world num­ber one rank­ing is some­thing ev­ery­body dreams of. I would like to keep this hon­our for as long as I can. But I need to keep my­self much fit­ter, stronger and men­tally tough, along with the belief that I can beat all the play­ers in the world.”

With her rank­ing ris­ing, so have peo­ple’s ex­pec­ta­tions from Saina. With a World Cham­pi­onship medal, an All Eng­land fi­nal and the tag of the best player in the uni­verse, can an Olympic gold be far be­hind, ask the fans. But Saina isn’t think­ing that far ahead. “You never know what can hap­pen be­fore I head to Rio. Win­ning a medal is not in my hands. What is in my hands is en­joy­ing this mo­ment and work­ing hard in ev­ery ses­sion!”

HOME TRUTHS

Ever since she moved to Ban­ga­lore, Saina has been lead­ing a monas­tic lifestyle, which re­volves around prac­tice, re­cov­ery and some more prac­tice. She has swapped her villa in Hy­der­abad with a room in the academy where she stays, along with her mother. What does she miss the most about Hy­der­abad? “My pet dog, home food, friends and of course, my fa­ther. At the age of 24, it was dif­fi­cult mov­ing away from them. Still, it is tough for me to stay away from my pet and my fa­ther. Let us see how long I can push it,” she says.

One of her big­gest dis­trac­tions when Saina wants to switch off from the cut-throat com­pe­ti­tion of bad­minton is Hindi films. “Most of our tour­na­ments end up be­ing re­ally tense and watch­ing a Bol­ly­wood film, par­tic­u­larly one which makes me laugh can be a great stress-buster. You laugh your wor­ries away for some mo­ments.”

As SRK may tes­tify, Saina is a Bol­ly­wood ‘fan’ at heart. A Dub­s­mash video that she made with dou­bles player Ak­shay De­walkar fea­tured scenes from

Damini in which she did a Sunny Deol, show­ing off her toned bi­ceps for the ‘Dhai kilo ka haath’ and micked Paresh Rawal’s di­a­logues from Hera Pheri and

An­daz Apna. “Paresh Rawal’s comic tim­ing was fan­tas­tic in these movies. We ended up laugh­ing a lot while do­ing the videos and they went vi­ral,” she smiles.

Has Saina put her per­sonal life on hold till she re­alises her dream of a gold medal at the Olympics – is mar­riage, for in­stance, on the hori­zon? “Mar­riage is not on my mind. Let us see till when I keep play­ing well. I will only be 26 af­ter the Rio Olympics. It will hap­pen when it has to hap­pen. I am not so keen on mar­riage. But I am keen on con­tin­u­ing to do well for the coun­try and mak­ing In­dia proud.”

She has many more tour­na­ments be­fore the Olympics, in­clud­ing the up­com­ing world cham­pi­onships, to do that. Let’s not wait till Rio to celebrate our num­ber one cham­pion. aasheesh.sharma@hin­dus­tan­times.com

Fol­low @aasheesh74 on Twit­ter

ONE FROM THE AL­BUM A young Saina cra­dles a doll (left); wear­ing the tri­colour proudly on Re­pub­lic Day dur­ing school as a nine-year-old (above)

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