An Olympic bronze medallist and the world’s fourth-ranked player, Saina Nehwal is now among the highest-paid athletes in India. In this autobiography, the 22-year-old talks about her journey from Hisar in Haryana to Hyderabad and the world stage. Though she is still at the peak of her career, Nehwal gives us a glimpse of what has made her the player she is. Edited excerpts:
Gopi sir is a lot cooler than some of the other coaches I have known. He is almost Buddha-like in his patience and even temper, rarely reacting to any of our outbursts. He is the coach I have trained with for the longest time and I have a great comfort level with him. He is always encouraging me with words like, ‘You’ve done so well for India, you are our gold.’ He can also tell if I am exhausted and will go easy on me that day, and likewise I can tell if he is in a bad mood too.
After I began training with Gopi sir my schedule changed. His experience in the international circuit was of tremendous importance. He focused on my fitness and stamina along with my game. He introduced me to techniques like Yoga Nidra, which helps me maintain my energy levels and a positive mindset. He has helped bring about a structure to my training and it’s made all the difference to my game. Gopi sir is also the one who’s made me an aggressive player. His international experience has been extremely useful in shaping my game. Within five to six years of training under him, I was World Number 2. And I couldn’t have done it without him.
The best thing about Gopi sir is that he can be like one of us, our friend, but at the same time he is our coach and mentor as well. When I play against him at the academy, he sometimes gets quite aggressive. It gets very tough to beat him but this is his way of provoking me to hit back and play harder. He challenges my game. This kind of training is really good for me.
Although he’s still quite young, he has dedicated himself to coaching and to us players. I don’t see him go on holidays with his family or take long breaks. Like me, his travels are usually for tournaments where he sits behind the players with his notebook, intensely focused, taking notes of our performances. He more or less lives the game! No dining out, no movies, no weekends off...but perhaps that’s what makes him the kind of coach our badminton team needs. And yet when we win a game, he is the first one to celebrate!
One of the lesser-known secrets about Gopi sir is that he is a fantastic cook. I remember how, during the French Open 2011, he cooked the entire team a really yummy chicken curry.
Dealing with criticism
A few months later that year, while running on the treadmill, I fell off and hurt my knee. It was so bruised that I could not bend it. There were three tournaments I had to play in during the coming months—the Thailand Open, Singapore Open, and Indonesia Open. I made it to the quarter-finals, semis and finals respectively. But I was in a lot of pain. I would change the bandage every day and sometimes the skin would peel off too. It was excruciating. When I was on court, it was impossible not to bend my knee and I couldn’t keep watching it. Post match, I suffered. And then I read that ‘sources’ close to me had told the press I had fallen off a Scooty, a vehicle I have never ridden! I would get calls asking me about the Scooty accident. They’d ask me ‘Can you win again?’ or ‘They say you are playing badly’. And when I asked who ‘they’ were, there were no answers. When I won, the media persons would ask, ‘So how come you won? Did she (the other player) have a bad day?’ And I would say, ‘No, I won because I played well’ and be greeted by derisive laughter. It was insensitive but we sportspersons have been told that as public personalities, we have to get used to this. But how does one get used to rudeness? At some point, I told myself that I couldn’t keep explaining myself to everyone. They’d just have to wait and watch, and my game would speak for itself.
Throughout 2011 I struggled to win tournaments and the media coverage certainly did not help. I tried to make it past at least the qualifying rounds to the quarters and semis, if not the finals. But it was the worst phase of my career. I was following up a three-year high with an all-time low. Finally, in December, I redeemed myself by reaching the finals of the Badminton World Federation Super Series Masters Finals. I lost to World Number 1 Wang Yihan in three sets but could at least look forward to a new season without injury, and better performances.
That’s how it is for us sportspeople—there is no such thing as sick leave. We have to play because there are people depending on us, a country that believes in us to do it proud. And that’s why it’s so important to keep ourselves injury-free. I cannot be careless and let go of the discipline because it will certainly come back to bite me in the backside! I have had to play a week after a bout of chickenpox, through viral infections, and as mentioned, with injuries. I remember having had a bad attack of viral fever during the French quarter-finals and being exhausted. It was so hard to keep going. Training never stopped through any of this. I have a tendency to put on weight and I had to make sure I was not binge eating or breaking away from my schedule. And after that, to hear criticism such as ‘She is in bad form’ is always upsetting.
There was a time at the beginning of my career when I loved to read about myself in the paper or see myself on TV, especially when they heaped praise upon me like ‘Saina on Cloud Nine’, ‘Saina Scripts History’, or ‘Super Saina Is Here’. But over the years that has changed. Now I cringe when I read some of the things written about me.
I have pretty much stopped reading the papers now and bothering about what people are saying. But there is so much information out there that to ignore all of it is also not possible. Anyway, one has to put it aside and work at improving one’s game, taking care of injuries, and watching one’s diet. And that’s harder than it sounds.
Playing to Win: My Life... On And Off Court will launch in Hyderabad on 7 November.