Saina Nehwal is temporarily and intriguingly caught in an almost-there place where few young players reach. This insane, alluring space between very good and great, this space of promise but no guarantee, a space so small it can be bridged by a single inspired moment, yet bridging it is so uncommonly hard.
I’m thinking this last month amid the plunk of shuttles as Saina loses a match she really shouldn’t. It’s June, it’s Singapore, her face tells you nothing, like it’s a mask bought from a shop of professional stoics. As she plays, she keeps wiping her shins, where I can see thin red lines, blood, it seems, from a fall from a treadmill. I watch Saina-usually on TV-more than any Indian because no other Indian plays at such an elevated level every week and this day she’s losing but I’m watching because one day she, brilliant, battling, is going to win and I just have to be there.
Stamp of success: Will her celebrity status lull Saina Nehwal into complacency. Athit Perawongmetha/Getty Images
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Not that she hasn’t won, for she has a briefcase full of tournament wins, Commonwealth gold, victories over the Chinese, and this is vital, the necessary steps on a never-ending ladder to some distant greatness, but what she has to win is her version of tennis’ majors. The world championships, which is next month. The All England, which has passed. An Olympic gold, which is coming. A sort of separation point, an arrival point, and she, so vastly sensible, knows this, once saying that the No. 1 ranking really didn’t matter, it was the major events which did. For that’s all you count when the racket’s hooked to a nail on the wall finally.
This place where Saina lives, where she’s fought to get to, and where she has to strive to exit by taking a last, excruciating step, it’s frustrating. Because she has everything. P. Gopi Chand, her coach, who did win a big one, told me last week that it isn’t as if she lacks a stroke, or a tactic, or speed, it’s all there, all just being polished and buffed every day, just awaiting an unveiling.
It’s taunting because it’s so close, she can probably smell the damn thing. But then she’ll fall (not fail) in a semi, a final, and feel like some sporting Sisyphus pushing a rock up the hill only for it to roll down. So she has to pick herself up and start again, still believing and not letting hope leak out of her. And if she has struggling days, and everyone does, someone should give her Novak Djokovic’s number, because he’s been there, locked in a Rafa-Roger planet, sick of it, tired of it, till really he had only two options, which is stay where he was, the supporting actor, or change his racket, his diet, flirt with different coaches, do anything to make it his planet.
It’s seductive, this place, because already she’s achieved enough to be twisted into a celebrity in India, to walk catwalks, sign endorsements, and it can lull you—and we’ve seen this before—into a sense of complacent comfort. Till you turn up a little late for training, or skip a day for a photo shoot, or sleep an hour extra, and just gently, just dangerously, misplace the truth of what made you famous in the first place, which is sweat and hunger, and hunger and sweat, till it almost hurts.
And it’s not as if Saina is losing her way at all, but still, just for fun maybe she should thumb through When the Game was Ours, Jackie MacMullan’s book on Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. One year, Bird wins the NBA title, and he’s exhausted, battered, he celebrates, but next day a teammate comes looking for him and he’s not home, he’s out running, and on his return the teammate asks “why” and Bird replies: “I’m getting ready for next year”.
For Gopi Chand, a sort of sergeant major crossed with a monk’s graveness, this is crucial, this balance athletes must find, where perks won from performance don’t start to affect performance. Under-do it, rather than over-do it, he preaches, and nails his philosophy to the floor with a simple line, “You have to weigh the decision: whatever I do, will it help my badminton?”
This place Saina is in is also, possibly, the most beautiful in sport. This prelude to winning a major, which is almost Hitchcockian, taut with a suspense, which only sport affords us constantly. She is 21, if she stays fit she has seven-eight years left to win one, win many. She has time, which is a reassurance, yet athletes are greedy, they want victory now, even while they tell themselves to be patient, to have faith, to trust it will come.
Gopi Chand trusts. It will happen, he says. It has to happen, he says. I think he’s right because Saina has a glint of hardness in her, she’s a craver of competition, she bleeds literally to win, she’s knocking hard on that door, cracking it, splintering it, it has to come down. Surely. And when it does, you know what we’ll say? That she’s great, whereupon, immediately, we will add: But how great can she be? How many more will she win? When? Imprisoning her in another space. For this is the mad beauty of the athletic life.
Rohit Brijnath is a senior correspondent with The Straits Times, Singapore.
Write to Rohit at email@example.com