At 20, Saina Nehwal finds herself at the forefront of a battle that can change the topography of world badminton. She’s No. 6 in the world, and all five players ranked above her are Chinese. Till recently, there was no question of this hegemony being challenged, but Nehwal will tell you without a hint of arrogance now that it’s just a matter of time.
In fact, she’ll tell you more. “I just need a more wristy game. That’s what I want,” she says. “I have everything else—power, stamina. Just a few more strokes, which are important at crucial moments, and maybe I would have been world No. 1 two years ago.”
Nehwal is not bragging. In her mind, this seems to be the simple and absolute truth.
Saina Nehwal on how she beats the Chinese at badminton and on her quest to be World No.1
In June, she stunned world No. 3 Lin Wang at the Indonesian Open, becoming the first Indian woman to win a Super Series tournament. “I was really tired after playing the last four matches,” she recalls. “My legs were not moving and I lost the first game 21-16 (in the final). I don’t know how, but in the second game my net play became really good. My dribbling was excellent, and my smashes were going so deep. Everything was falling into place. When she (Lin) continuously loses points, she gets really nervous.”
Seeded No. 1 in the ongoing Asian Badminton Championship in New Delhi, Nehwal is looking forward to establishing her supremacy before a bigger test, the Commonwealth Games later this year.
The game changer
Till she came along, Indian badminton players, especially the women, were known for their gentle “wristy” game, lacking in stamina and strength and dominated by placements near the net. They were lovely to watch for a few points, but without the power and self-belief, could hardly compete on the world stage. But Nehwal has always been different.
“I’m basically a power player, I’m an aggressive player,” she says . “I have good stamina and I can continue with rallies, but I need good strokes too. For that, I need to work every day. If I don’t practise my strokes for two days, I might forget how to play badminton. On days when I have my strokes going and my power play at its peak, I will beat anyone.”
That’s why she puts in as much effort to hone her technique as she does to increase her power and stamina on court. A typical training schedule involves 4-5 hours of playing on court, and 2-3 hours of intense physical training six days a week. She puts equal stress on weight-training, cardio and agility exercises.
Her mental strength was forged when Nehwal was still very young. From age 8 till she was 14, Nehwal used to travel 25km from her home in Hyderabad to her training centre. She would be accompanied by her parents Harvir Singh and Usha Nehwal, both former state-level badminton players. They would wake up every day at 4 in the morning to be at training by 5.30, and then be back in time for school. In the evening, Nehwal was back on the bus, travelling the long road to her academy.
Power play: Saina Nehwal goes for the kill with a trademark hard smash.
“From 4 in the morning till 10 at night, I was travelling, studying, and practising every single day. By the time Sunday came, I’d be thanking God, but the day would finish really fast. There were too many things I experienced at a young age—jumping off trains, jumping off buses, travelling non-stop. It’s because of that I really became mentally strong.” Things were easier after Nehwal turned 16. “I have a car now, a home next to the academy, I’m playing well. It’s all because of those tough four or five years.”
It was around then that her mother Usha taught her how to overcome her fear of her stronger opponents, especially the Chinese. “Just think that you want to win,” she told the young Nehwal, affectionately called Steffi—inspired by tennis player Steffi Graf—because of her fighting spirit. “Because the opponent also wants to win against you—just keep that in mind and nothing else—not that she’s Chinese, or she’s from Korea, or Holland.”
Nehwal is the first Indian girl to win the World Junior Championship, the first Indian woman to reach the quarter-finals of the Olympics, the first Indian woman to reach the semis of the hallowed All-England— does she ever think of this pioneering path?
“It’s just happening; I have no time to really think about it. By the time I can think of my last performance, the next one is coming up. My parents and my coach (Pullela Gopichand) don’t let me think—they say you have to still work towards your goal, which is the Olympic gold. They always keep me on my toes saying this is nothing, that is nothing,” she giggles.
Off the court, Nehwal drops her military toughness, and gushes with enthusiasm when she talks of her heroes—Shah Rukh Khan, Roger Federer and Sachin Tendulkar.
When told that she shares a trait with all these men—their lack of self-doubt—she blushes: “Yes, I believe I am the best.”