For most athletes, winning an Olympic medal would be the pinnacle of their sporting career. Not so for Saina Nehwal, the Indian badminton player who won a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics.
The world women’s number three admits that stepping on to the Olympic podium was a “dream come true” but she is most proud of her Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award that she won in 2010 – the prestigious national award for sportspeople who make a mark in their field. “It’s special because I was the only sportsperson chosen for it that year,’’ Saina, 23, smiles. Last year there were two winners.
A badminton player with a never-say-die attitude, Saina has the sport in her blood – her parents, Harvir Singh and Usha Nehwal, were accomplished players who represented their state, Haryana, at the national level. When Saina was eight, her father was appointed as principal scientist at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research in Hyderabad.
Keen to develop his daughter’s talent, he enrolled Saina at a summer badminton camp where her ability was spotted by Nani Prasad, a well-known badminton player who became her first coach.
Saina hasn’t looked back since. The journey that began 15 years ago has made her a household name in India, particularly after she bagged the Olympic medal. She reached a career best ranking of world number two in December 2010 by the Badminton World Federation – a first for an Indian woman in badminton.
Among several honours, Saina has India’s prestigious Padma Shri – the fourth highest civilian award – in her trophy collection. But she has her sights firmly set on 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro where she’ll be aiming for gold.
Her will to win is clear from her words at the launch of her autobiography, Playing to Win; “I love winning more than I love playing badminton. Winning is everything.” Taking time off from her busy schedule, Saina shares her love of the game with Friday:
The strongest memories I have of badminton training are of how tough it was. I was eight when I joined a squad at a stadium 25 kilometres away from my home. I had to wake up at 4am and catch a ride on the back of my father’s scooter. The practice session began at 6am and lasted two hours. The pre-game exercises included a warm up with a 400-metre sprint and a session of skipping. We also had to go on a cross-country run of about four to five kilometres once a week.
My father would wait until practice was over then take me to school, which was
20 kilometres from the stadium. I was so tired by the end of the session that I occasionally used to doze off while riding pillion. Worried I might fall off the scooter, my mother began accompanying me and the three of us used to ride on Dad’s two-wheeler. This continued for about three months until my parents decided to move closer to the stadium.
My mother was keen to do all she could to make me a top-class athlete. She instilled in me the importance of practising daily and she was right. I was the only player chosen for further training by the end of the summer coaching camp. This was the beginning of my career.
Once my school reopened my coach, Nani, suggested I needed to put in more time and offered to train me in the evening as well. So after work, Dad used to drive me to practice. We’d get home at 9pm by which time I’d be too tired to do my homework. However, I never lagged behind in academics and was attentive while in class. This was the reason I was among the top-ten students.
I come from a middle-class family – I have a sister, Abu Aulak, seven years my senior, who is not into sports – and my training cost a lot. My family sacrificed a lot so I could pursue my passion. My Dad used to spend around Rs12,000 (Dh815) every month on my sport.
We would rarely go to see a movie or eat out because my parents felt that that money could be spent on my training. I learnt much later that my father had withdrawn money from his retirement fund to make ends meet and ensure my practice was not disrupted.
I have trained for the longest time with my present coach, Pullela Gopichand, who turned me into an aggressive player. A year into the training, I participated in the under-ten district-level tournament and won Rs500 as prize money. As I do still, I gave the prize money to my parents.
In 2002, at the age of 12, when I made it past the state and national level tournaments and began playing internationally, the Indian subsidiary of the Japanese sportsgoods company Yonex Sunrise Sports offered to sponsor my kit and that was a huge relief for my parents. But during all those years, my father never told me that there were financial difficulties because he feared it would upset me and shift my focus away from badminton.
The Czech Open Junior in 2003 was the tournament that made me famous. At 13, I won the under-19 tournament in the international circuit by beating players who ranked world number 60 and 20 in the senior category!
In 2006, I had to travel to the Philippines Open, which almost coincided with my class-11 exams. Despite the hectic schedule, I did well in my exams. I then bid goodbye to my studies, deciding to concentrate on my first passion – sport. I don’t think I’ve missed out on school or college life because to me badminton is my life.
I am currently employed by Bharat Petroleum Corporation as a deputy manager. It may sound weird, but I started working for them at the age of 14. In India, it’s common for oil companies, banks, the services and public-sector organisations such as the railways and airlines to employ top sportspersons so when they are not playing for the country they can play for the organisations in national-level tournaments. I earn a pretty decent monthly salary and it feels good that I can contribute to the family’s kitty.
At the World Super Series Masters tournament in 2008, I was awarded $10,000 (Dh36,700) in prize money for my semi-final appearance. It was a huge amount for an 18-year-old at the time and I was thrilled, although I was hoping to make it to the finals. A few weeks later, I participated in another tournament, which I lost. It was shocking to find that the media that had raved about me a month before, was now trashing me.
But it also taught me a valuable lesson – to take both accolades and criticism in my stride and not overreact to either. I must say I was under a lot of pressure while training for the 2012 Olympics, but as a professional athlete I know that it is a part of every professional sport and there’s also a huge incentive – winning an Olympic medal. So I was ready to put in any number of hours to perfect my game.
Winning a medal at the Olympics was a huge achievement for me and it’s something I will never forget. I am often asked how I deal with stress. It is always there in any match and when I’m stressed I usually end up taking it out on my father. He knows that I am only letting off steam and he patiently listens to my ranting. Sometimes I also talk out loud back in my hotel room about what went wrong in the match.
It’s my way of getting the stress out of my system. I then sit down and think about it over and over again to work out what was lacking in my preparation or practice and work towards improving those points. I have had to travel alone on certain occasions and missed my parents.
I would call them up several times a day and when the phone bill came, I would be horrified. I’ve run up bills of about Rs100,000 when I’m overseas participating in a tournament. I am happiest when my father travels with me. On those occasions my phone bills are not exorbitant!
Unlike most youngsters who have school as their ‘second home’ where they meet and make friends, for me playtime has been at the Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad. When I am not playing a tournament, my days are spent at the Academy with my coaches, physiotherapists and colleagues, who are like family. We laugh and have so much fun.
Earlier, travelling abroad was exciting, but over the years it has become a routine. When abroad, I play the match and return to the hotel and have little time for leisure. My only indulgence is food, especially Thai cuisine. When I win, celebration means having an ice cream! When I am not travelling, I stick to home-cooked food that is prepared with very little oil.
Although I exercise and work out a lot, I feel I need to control the kind of food I eat as it could affect my performance. But occasionally I let go a bit, particularly when my mother makes irresistible aloo parathas – I gorge on them.
When people say I have become a celebrity, I remind them of fame’s flip side. For instance, if I want to watch a movie in a cinema, I have to enter through a side exit just before the film begins and leave by the same exit before the credits roll.
There have been occasions when people have recognised me in public and I have been mobbed. It was a bit scary but I guess it’s something anybody who’s in the public eye has to endure. Not having a normal childhood where I could make friends and attend birthday parties did not bother me at all. For me, badminton was normal. I played, trained and won tournaments, and also went to school passing every exam first-class.
One of the things that give me a lot of joy is the fact that I was invited by the Andhra Pradesh government to be the brand ambassador of the “Save the Girl Child” campaign. The initiative takes up causes like gender bias, female foeticide and education of girl children. I am proud that people see me as a role model for young girls.
Another moment of pride was when, in 2008 after I won the World Junior Badminton Championship, my alma mater, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s Vidyashram School in Hyderabad, invited me to be the chief guest for sports day. As I sat on the dais, the dean addressed me as “madam”, which left me flabbergasted!
Apart from badminton, I also love to sketch, but I just don’t find time for it now.
I enjoy comics and cartoons and my favourite is Tom and Jerry.
To win at the Olympics is the highest honour for every athlete and I, too, have such dreams. Although I won a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics, I dream of the gold, which I may perhaps win at Rio de Janeiro in 2016. I am 23 now and I have many years ahead of me.
I’m following a strict exercise regimen to maintain my fitness levels. I feel blessed to have won so many championships but my dream is to see all sportspeople be given their due in India. I often hear about athletes who have to sacrifice their dreams of representing their state or the country simply because they are forced to take up jobs to make ends meet.
The fact that cricket is the only sport that gets prominence is a complaint many athletes make. My dream is to see India as a nation of well-looked-after and respected sportspeople in all fields.