This story was first published on 12 April 2012.

It’s 6am, and Saina Nehwal, bleary eyed, climbs the broad stairs that lead to the badminton hall at the Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad. Fifteen minutes later, the last vestiges of sleep wiped away, Nehwal is doing what she does best—using her quick feet to chase down shuttlecocks, squeezing out returns that look out of her reach, rising high to smash with brute power. The screeching sound of her sneakers fills the air inside the aircraft hangar-like hall as Pullela Gopi Chand, her coach, takes her through the first drill of the day.

“Cross," Gopi Chand says. “Pick up. Smash. Cross. Jump. Cross," alternately dropping the shuttle at one corner of the net or lifting it high towards the back of the court. Nehwal retrieves.

photoThis is the prelude to a battle—at this juncture, the most important fight in Nehwal’s career: the 2012 London Olympics. “The medal drives me," she says. “I see the medal, and I want it." She had wanted it back in 2008, at the Beijing Olympics, and she came close. She was up 11-3 in the third and deciding game in the quarter-final, the first Indian woman to reach that stage, before losing her momentum and the match. “I thought, for just a few seconds, that my god, I’m so close to winning this!" Nehwal says. “And that’s when it all went wrong. I got too tense and too excited, and I lost."

How will her experience in 2008 shape her campaign this year? “I’m not going with 2008 in my mind," Nehwal says. “It’s a different time, a different tournament, and I’m a different player."

All this is evident: She had just started making inroads into world badminton in 2008, at the age of 18—now she is 22 and world No. 5 (after having touched a high of world No. 2). She had won a bronze in the 2006 Commonwealth Games before she rushed into the Olympic quarter-final, and now she has four Super Series titles and four Grand Prix titles (a notch below the Super Series in importance), as well as a Commonwealth Games gold (2010, Delhi). Yet there’s one lesson from 2008 that still drives her. “I’ll never make the mistake of thinking that I’ve won while I’m still playing a match," she says. “Even if I’m match point up, I have to stay absolutely focused and strong and fight for the next point. That loss in 2008 was needed. It made me strong."

It’s 8am, and Nehwal is not preparing for war, she is at war. She stands on one side of the court. On the other, four players line up against her—Gopi Chand, Nehwal’s co-trainees, world No. 30 Parupalli Kashyap and world No. 43 Guru Sai Dutt, and Dwi Kristiawan, the Indian badminton team’s Indonesian coach. Four-on-one is a joke, but Nehwal still looks like she is out to win. Her face is stoic, her lips sealed in a thin, grim line, her eyes have a cold rage. She returns everything they throw at her. She’s pumped up, wired as tautly as the netting on her racket, as she picks up smash after smash that whizzes at her. When the body tires of this mad dance of reflexes, and she fails to pick up the shuttle, her face screws up in disappointment. “C’mon!" she screams at herself. Then she stares at the floor for a few seconds, steadies herself, and gets back in position to resume the battle.

“If I’m at my best on a day, nobody can beat me," Nehwal says. “I feel that I’m world No. 1."

Like her game, her words too are edged with steel. But this is not just cockiness—this is how she conditions and trains her mind to take on the intense pressure of competition, to remain calm under fire. “For different people it’s different, but Saina is somebody who wins matches when she goes in with the belief that she will win," Gopi Chand says. “At the moment, she is supremely confident. But whichever way you go, the important thing is that when something unexpected hits you, when something pulls you down, you still have the ability to remain calm and focused."

In that respect, Nehwal has gone through her most severe test yet. After the high of 2010, where she won three Super Series titles, two Grand Prix titles, and a Commonwealth Games gold, 2011 went awry. She fought with Gopi Chand and began training under a different coach, injured her ankle, and most tellingly, managed to win just one tournament, the Swiss Open. Though both Gopi Chand and Nehwal refuse to talk about the reasons for their tiff, the turmoil had severe effects on Nehwal. “To be away from my coach and my normal training was devastating," she says. “I missed not talking about my games with him, I felt uncomfortable; nothing was going right."

As the losses mounted, so did Nehwal’s frustration. “I’m not old enough to take things easily, so every loss, every criticism hurt me bad," she says. “I cried a lot, and nobody can really stop you from crying when you are feeling that bad."

In mid-June, she took the first step to recovery—patching up with Gopi Chand after the four-month separation, and going back to training under him. “Everything started falling back in place," she says. Gopi Chand began counselling her. “He told me ‘you are the best player we have, and you will only go up, so stop worrying about these things and make improving your game your only headache, and the results will come’."

photoNehwal put her faith in him, stopped reading newspaper articles on her, and cleared her mind of everything but her training. The road back was slow and methodical—first the recovery from the ankle injury, then losing the extra weight she had put on because of the layoff, then increasing her speed, and finally improving her game. “I had to add more variety to my strokes," she says. “I needed to learn how to get close to the net quicker, improve my back foot strokes and my net-play—just about everything needed to get sharper and more effective."

She felt she was back to her best in December, and in March, she successfully defended her Swiss Open title. “By the end of the year, Saina had beaten most of the players whom she had lost to earlier in the year," Gopi Chand says. “You might as well make your mistakes in the year before the Olympics when there’s still time to rectify them. I’m happy to say that she has been able to find that balance and things are on the right track for her."

It’s 12.30pm, and Nehwal has been on the court for nearly 6 hours now, with a couple of breaks thrown in. Her forehand is a taut, dangerous whip, and she smashes with an all-body snap that hurtles the shuttlecock, the fastest projectile in racket sports, at what must be pretty close to its top speed of around 320 kmph. The kinetic beauty and excitement on display when a top athlete trains is difficult to explain: the speeds at which the shuttle flies, the quickness with which Nehwal reacts, moves, strikes, recovers, or the way her body stretches out to painful angles effortlessly to reach for a shot. But what is most striking is the sheer physicality of the sport, which is right up there in intensity with the way boxers, wrestlers or footballers train. The court sessions will end at 1, and after a 2-hour break for lunch and sleep, Nehwal will get into the gym for hard-core conditioning work and weight training for 2 hours.

photoRight now, she has upped her intensity of practice to frenetic levels to build the base for the final lap of training for the Olympics, and the Olympics itself. A month before the Olympics, Gopi Chand will introduce a variety of new coaching methods designed to give her that final push, and surprise opponents who have been deconstructing and video-analysing her previous games. Along with the final phase of the training, Gopi Chand says, Nehwal will also need to go into a hermit-like stage. “Shut off the iPhone, the Internet, the people who say ‘all our prayers are with you, you are our only hope’ or newspaper reports saying ‘PM wants to see a medal from Saina’—shut it all out."

The final question, the one that nags Nehwal like a chronic disease: Can she break the Chinese? The Chinese have had a stranglehold on world badminton, especially in the women’s game, where they have won 12 of the last 14 World Championships in women’s singles, and the last three women’s singles gold at the Olympics. Nehwal is not up against just one player, she is up against a sea of them—she’s taking on the most powerful champion-producing system in the world. In the world rankings, the four players ahead of Nehwal, and the player immediately behind her, are all Chinese. “I know I can beat them one by one," Nehwal says.

In the barrage of criticism she faced in 2011, one fact was lost —she met Wang Yihan, the Chinese world No. 1 and the current world champion, twice in Super Series finals. Both times, Nehwal had pushed Yihan to three games, coming within an inch of winning.

“With every loss, I learnt something," Nehwal says. “Every match, I realized that I had the confidence and the skill to beat her, so it’s just a matter of time."

Is the time now? “Yes," Nehwal says, “in my head,I’ve already won the Olympic medal."

What will you do when you actually win a medal?

“I will only know that when I have the medal in my hand," she says, haltingly. “Maybe it will take me months, maybe years to sink in. You asked me that and I feel like crying, I have goosebumps everywhere…I don’t know what I will do if I win it."

rudraneil.s@livemint.com

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