Resurgent Saina guns for more glory

Every time, there were doubts about her ability to post big wins, Saina Nehwal has had always bounced back like a champion.

Saina Nehwal focuses to remain fit ahead of the upcoming big events this year.   -  V.V. SUBRAHMANYAM​

She is always known to be a fighter! Every time, there were doubts about her ability to post big wins, Saina Nehwal has had always bounced back like a champion. Not that she wants to prove her detractors wrong, but it has been one of her amazing trait in a career spanning close to two decades.

And, when Saina won the women’s singles gold in the recently-held Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast (her second after the 2010 Delhi CWG gold), it was only another reminder that the resurgence of this spirited shuttler is really on. Not a welcome sign for her competitors, certainly!

In an exclusive chat with Sportstar, Saina took time off from another demanding training schedule at Gopichand Academy, to share thoughts on many aspects of her life, career and future plans.

INJURY AND COMEBACK

“Yes, I was facing issues with my injuries. Then, I consulted Christopher Pedra of Mumbai. He checked me after that issue in last December. Then, I was playing but not really practising hard. Then, he corrected some mistakes in my training and suggested some strength training exercises, which really helped me a lot,” Saina reminisces that agonising phase where the future looked bleak.

“Honestly, I was never worried about my game at all at any given point of time. For, I was sure if the desired fitness level is there, the results are bound to follow. Well, whenever the coaches saw some issues like my strokes in the corner or movements, they all worked accordingly,” she pointed out.

“I must say Gopi Sir definitely worked a lot on agility side, an issue that I was not really working hard then. He focussed a lot on my forehand which he felt was not steady then. He corrected and you see there are longer rallies happening a lot more now because I train with the boys in the Academy. His on-court planning was of immense help to me,” Saina said.

"I was never worried about my game at all at any given point of time," Saina on her comeback after surgery.   -  V.V. SUBRAHMANYAM​

 

Saina recalls an interesting observation which Gopi made this January during the India Open. “You have to take care of your body. Results will come by April this year. He was so prophetic and also so confident in my ability. I am grateful to him. That simple advice worked like magic to me. For I realised how important it is if I were to pursue my bigger goals. Obviously, the emphasis on fitness is more now from my side than when I was 18. For the body will not be the same. Yes, every week is a difficult experience for me,” she says.

Did the surgery and the subsequent break after the Rio Olympics worry you a lot? “Honestly, no. I knew that somewhere it will take a turn for the good. Every player goes through this kind of phase. Obviously, after the surgery and the three months rest did took time for me to come out. Never easy,” says Saina.

What has been the biggest support to you during those testing times? “Interesting. Let's make it clear that no body was against me. No one made me feel that I have any issues. Everyone helped me - my parents, Gopi Sir, Vimal Sir and earlier Bhaskar Babu Sir. They all wanted me to enjoy my game. So, there was never like someone trying to put me down,” she says with a big smile.

MOMEMTUM IS KEY

Do you feel that CWG gold, beating P.V. Sindhu in the final is a resurgence of sorts in your career? “I will put it this way. I just want to keep doing all good things at the right time. Everyone has a specific programme. I just want the momentum to keep going by putting in the kind of effort needed to be consistent at the highest level. Certainly, I am a force to reckon with.”

“Quite honestly, the celebrations on winning the CWG gold in Gold Coast lasted only for one or two hours. Nothing great and I am not winning it for the first time. So, the focus is that I have to carry on for next four months. Every week is a testing phase now as there are so many big events like Asiad, World Championship and so many Super Series lined up,” she says.

And, Saina strongly believes that the players should be consulted when it comes to scheduling the major events. “For instance, the Asian championship followed the CWG within one week. Where is time to recover and train. It is not easy for anyone especially who figure in both these championships. The chances of injuries are bigger,” she says.

“This is why I feel that like in women’s tennis, we need a players body to take up our cause. But again, we are not sure with whom we should take it up and who will fight for us. And because most of the Asians are not that good in English, I think that is also a problem in putting our view across,” says Saina.

'FORCED TO WORK ON MY FITNESS'

What is the big difference you see - Saina in 2008 and now in 2018? “Not much frankly. Obviously, more experienced, aggressive. But forced to work more on my fitness level because of my age. Importantly the fighting spirit is the same. I hate to give up easily and to lose against anyone,” she says.

Any improvements still? “Well, you have to be a better player every week. Definitely need to work on my game. I don’t have many talented strokes like some have. I am working on retrieving and attacking a lot and that has helped me a lot in the recent past,” reveals Saina.

Do you believe that women’s singles is more challenging and attractive now? “Yes. It is more open now as players not just from China but other countries are catching up and producing results. If you look at the matches which are lasting more than 100 minutes now. It has become faster and more challenging.”

Is China not the same dominant force in badminton now? “I don’t think so. It still has a system which can produce five quality players who can beat anyone on their day. You can never underestimate those players. Yes, players from other countries are more advanced in training and posing some challenge to them,” says Saina.

What is the other side of Saina? “There is nothing to talk about. I just want to stay focussed to be a better player. For me, out of the 24 hours a day, 13 to 14 hours the focus is always on your body, rehab, good food. I emphasise good diet is the key. The better you train the fitter you are,” she says. “And there is no time to relax except on Sundays when I go out for a movie or for dinner mostly with my parents or close friends. Yes, I just try to make my mom and dad feel they are comfortable and their support is always there for me,” she says.

'HAPPY TO BE PART OF THE EVOLUTION'

How do you look at your role in the evolution of Indian badminton into a potent force in the big league? “I don’t want to give an impression that it is because of me or a particular individual. Everyone is part of the current status. Certainly, Indian badminton has come to a stage where it is one of the powerhouses of the sport. I can say I am blessed to be part of this evolution. If someone says that I am responsible, I only feel happy to hear such good things,” says a beaming Saina.

“Yes, I am glad with the number of Super Series titles I have won. But again, records are meant to be broken, as they say. I am sure when I can achieve that anyone else can do that also,” she says.

On money and stardom for the shuttlers? “These things should be there for the players. They are important and an integral part of their career. Everyone has to think of life beyond sport. And nobody enters sport with a long-term objective of making money or achieving stardom. These things follow the success stories you script. So, like anyone else fighting to bring laurels to the country, we athletes also play for the nation’s pride. So, I think, we deserve them even though I still think there is lack of rewards for many athletes, despite giving their best on the highest platforms,” reasons out Saina.

Realistically what are the bigger goals you are chasing now? “The primary objective is always to better my previous performances. Definitely, by enjoying the sport I am so passionate, I also feel winning the medal for my country, a chance which not everyone gets, is the driving force to keep me going. I hope to keep winning many more medals,” says the 2012 Olympics bronze medallist.

“Well, like on the first day of my career - when I felt I should take a break but came back to the court the very next day - the same process has been going on, fortunately. The inspiration has to come from within to keep playing the game. And this is not possible unless you have it in your heart to enjoy the sport. There were many challenges in my long journey but there are also many who helped me,” she says.

GOPICHAND BELIEVES IN LONG-TERM PLANNING

You have worked with three different coaches - Gopi, Bhaskar Babu, Vimal Kumar. What is the big difference you see in them? “All of them have different styles but have the same goal - to see Saina winning. It is not that I had to fight with someone for this. I have the same respect for everyone,” she says.

Being more specific on Gopi, Saina says he is more understanding without being told what she needs. “He makes sure there is a programme which is comfortable and suits the players. He has this great knack of long-term planning and doesn’t look for immediate results. Essentially, he ensures that you are in the comfort zone during training,” she added.

How do you define role of Gopi in badminton? “There is no doubt players are doing well because of his training. He thinks differently. The best part is that he ensures each one of us, say Sindhu, Srikanth, Prannoy have different programmes. And, interestingly I don’t discus about any strategies with him. For he says, there is no point in doing so as I do what I feel best once I enter the court,” says Saina bursting into laughter.

“There is no doubt players are doing well because of his training," Saina on Gopichand.   -  V.V. SUBRAHMANYAM​

 

“Well during the games too, he just advised only to stay focussed and in a long match just a couple of areas to focus against that particular opponent,” she added.

“But, I have never seen Gopi Sir as excited as he was during the recent CWG. He was tensed up and coming off the chair frequently. Perhaps, these Games coming once in four years, he wanted an Indian to win the gold desperately. Yes, we both were under lot of pressure and pulled it off eventually,” she recalled.

Indian sport needs more coaches like Gopi? “Definitely. That would witness a sea change in the scenario producing many greats in different disciplines. We will be next to China if that happens,” feels Saina.

NO RIVALRY WITH SINDHU

On Sindhu-Saina rivalry, a visibly cool Saina doesn’t want to give too much of importance. “It matters little for both of us. For we play to win against anyone. And it is never easy for both of us to be finalists in each and every tournament. Yes, there are different kind of challenges when we face each other and we enjoy them,” she said.

“Well, our rivalry means little to the players from other countries. For ultimately it comes to facing one Indian in the final. And they are always well prepared for such kind of situations,” she said.

How is life now at this stage? “Everything going well right now. Feeling happy. The targets keep changing. It is all happening so quickly. Already two years since Rio Games and now we are looking at 2020 Tokyo Games. Definitely, Olympic gold is one big dream now,” says Saina.

On personal life, Saina says there is nothing much to discuss about it, including marriage. “I am not bothered about anything. There is no such dream. It is part of life. If it happens, it will happen. All I dream now is to do well in my career and win more laurels for the country,” signs off a confident champion.