Zestful ‘Saina Squad’ out to cheer Saina

The Saina Squad, a motley crew of 18 diehard fans, drawn from a string of contests on social media conducted by Star Sports, shadowed Saina Nehwal in the MetLife BWF World Superseries.

Saina Nehwal in action at the BWF World Superseries.   -  Getty Images

'Saina Squad' members hold banners in support of her in the BWF World Superseries in Dubai.   -  A. Joseph Antony

Saina Nehwal interacts with members of 'Saina Squad'.   -  A. Joseph Antony

They could become the Indian equivalent of the Barmy Army, the British band of cricket enthusiasts who follow the fortunes of their team, crossing oceans. A motley crew of 18 diehard fans, drawn from a string of contests on social media conducted by Star Sports, shadowed Saina Nehwal in the MetLife BWF World Superseries. Outfitted with dark blue personalised jerseys, travel T-shirts with names, caps, badges and friendship bands, the ‘Saina Squad’ was visibly and vocally supportive of the Indian ace.

Out of the rooting Carolina Marin got during the BWF finals from a set of Spanish fans - all the more pronounced in the finals when Indonesian fans supported the World No. 1 - was born the Star Sports concept of a dedicated band of followers for Saina. Besides, the channel sought to make badminton bigger.

Towards that end, a promo titled ‘I’m never alone’ was shot in Mumbai, where Saina was seen mostly alone, during jogging and training. The short film climaxed with the shuttler entering a badminton court to rousing cheers from her fans, to drive home the message that she would have support.

Saina meets 'Saina Squad'

Saina was excited for this was something she had never done before, said a Star Sports marketing team member. A meet and greet programme was held on the eve of the championship, where the Saina Squad, flown in from India, met their favourite sportsperson.

The World No. 2’s first round defeat to Nozomi Okuhara was more than made up for by a fighting win over world champion Carolina Marin. “We’ll continue to back you,” the squad had told Saina, not in peak form after her Achilles tendon injury in the China Open, after that first setback against the Japanese shuttler.

Sure enough, against Marin the banners were out as were the slogans such as ‘Saina’s smash, opponents crash’ in addition to ‘ karega kamal, Saina Nehwal,’ which translates to Saina will do wonders. The 'Saina Squad' was a mix of fans from across the country, in age from 18 to 43 years. Among them were diehard Indian cricket and Chennai Super Kings supporters Prabhu Damodaran and Saravanan Hari, the latter often aglow in yellow body paint in the southern side’s colours and splashed several times across many sports pages.

On Thursday night after the Indian ace’s victory over arch rival Carolina Marin, the squad was understandably elated. Before she left the stadium that night, Saina spent time with her fans, who shot selfies with her, smiles aplenty lighting up the pathway to the superb Hamdan Sports Complex, venue of the last of the Superseries.

The Dubai sports authorities had gone out of their way to promote the Superseries. Every hour buses ferried fans free from various points in the city. Many of the 'Saina Squad' had sore throats from screaming for the Indian against Carolina, some of them having completely lost their voices. On Friday, the chanting continued even after Saina’s defeat, the loyal band anxious during its wait to know whether its idol would make it to the semis. When they knew she would not, there was silence, but only for a while. Since a few of them were former sportspersons, they knew ups and downs were part and parcel of a champion’s life and took Saina's setback in their stride.