‘I am an intruder in the top 10’

K. MURALI KUMAR

Saina Nehwal is positive about joining the elite band of players in the world. “The top five players are Chinese or China-born (Hong Kong’s Chen Wang, France’s Hongyan Pi), only one is from Denmark (Tine Rasmussen). It appears that their stamina and body strength are a little better than mine, but I am confident that I will attain that standard soon,” she says in a chat with Nandakumar Marar.

Saina Nehwal, who recently became India’s first woman to enter the top 10 in the world badminton rankings, is now aiming to break into the top five. She is training hard under her coach P. Gopi Chand to achieve her goal. Reaching the singles semifinals of the Yonex Sunrise BWF Super Series Masters Finals in Malaysia in December 2008 is a sign of things to come. The 18-year-old player from Hyderabad is catching up with her peers and winning their respect.

Saina’s performance at the Beijing Olympics, where she entered the quarterfinals, made her very popular among the Indian youth. Later, her victory in the World Junior Championships in Pune in 2008 swelled her fan following.

Saina was back in Pune recently for the 29th Petroleum Sports Promotion Board Inter-Unit Championship where she helped Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL) lift the women’s team title. She, however, opted out of the individual event citing fatigue; she wanted to go home and rest after having had a hectic season.

Saina’s fans were disappointed, but she explained: “It is not a casual decision, skipping the singles event. I would have played, but a big risk was involved, so I left gracefully. It is not my decision; it is my body which required a little rest. I was on the circuit from November 2008 through December up to January 2009 in different countries, playing top guns.”

In Saina, India has a woman achiever bold enough to state her ambitions at the international level. She talks to Sportstar about life at the top and spells out the changes needed in our approach — as a family and society — to move on from a nation of numbers to a sporting force.

Excerpts:

Question: You are now among the top 10 in the world and aiming higher. When competing in the circuit, do you feel you are accepted as one of the best players in the world? Or do you feel like an outsider attempting to break into an elite band?

Answer: I was world No. 11 in the first week of October 2008, by the first week of December 2008, I became No. 10. The top 10 players are winners of numerous Super Series events, so their points are in the 70,000-80,000 range, and mine is 50,000. The day I win any Super Series event I will also be in top 10, otherwise I will be just No. 9 or 10. As an Indian, I think I am an intruder in the top 10.

You have a bold outlook about your career goals — as a promising junior you talked of matching the Chinese players, and now you are aiming to break into the top five in the world rankings this season and take the world number one spot next year. Are you a bold person by nature?

Yes, I am. It is now clear that I can beat the Chinese, Malaysian or the Indonesian players, though it is difficult to maintain the same tempo every day. The top five players are Chinese or China-born (Hong Kong’s Chen Wang, France’s Hongyan Pi), only one is from Denmark (Tine Rasmussen). It appears that their stamina and body strength are a little better than mine, but I am confident that I will attain that standard soon.

A few years ago, you were one of the many youngsters playing badminton. At what point did you get a clear idea of a career in sport? Were you inspired by any achiever in any field?

I was clear from the start. My parents visualised a badminton career for me and gave me all the support and an excellent environment, and I gave the results. I do not look to others for inspiration. I feel I should become the best and keeping trying to get better. I enjoy watching Roger Federer.

We wait for champions to emerge and become famous, then sponsorships, money and incentives follow. From your experience, are we losing talent due to the absence of a support system for youngsters, since financial and emotional security is vital for performers to focus on the game?

A support system is important for a sportsperson to progress. Money is a big constraint for the talented players. I do not know how it happened for me. Initially (in 1999) SAI (Sports Authority of India) paid me Rs. 750 per month when I joined badminton, next PSPB (Petroleum Sports Promotion Board) paid me Rs. 2,500 per month till I became the under-13 champion. BPCL paid a five-figure monthly stipend from 2004 till I became 18 and then made me an Executive Officer from March 2008.

You are one of the beneficiaries of the Mittal Champions Trust (MCT) programme. How does it work in your case?

I got financial support from MCT from 2007. Anything I wanted — physio, coach, medicine, diet, sports equipment — MCT provided for me. They also took care of my flight tickets and hotel charges, made me comfortable. They made me a force in world badminton. It is a miracle, a god-given gift to me. So if this type of facility is given to a few other sportspersons, Indian sport can attain new heights.

We are second to none in any sport in the world. Many medals from major competitions can be in India’s lap. In cricket, such support is there hence we are world famous. Hockey is not like that, so the results are not encouraging. Parental affection is required, I mean in the form of all-round support from the associations, government and corporate houses.

Do Indians have a natural flair and aptitude for badminton? Or is it because of training and playing facilities created by private academies over the years?

No, facilities are lacking at the grassroot level. Though sport is part of the school curriculum in India, it is restricted to a 45-minute period. Nobody is serious in that period. In the evening, everybody goes for studies and coaching classes, not for games.

As a regular on the international circuit, do you feel sustained training and preparation are critical for success? Or is sustained exposure to international competition the sensible way forward?

At the international level, circuit training is a must. Simply going and playing casually will not help. Getting the best coach is necessary for proper guidance.

Indian family, Indian society — do they now accept a girl choosing sport as a career? Mary Kom is a world boxing champion, while the women shooters are making an impact. Indian women are coming up in diverse sports?

Initially very few girls were there in sport. The real test is yet to come. I am proud of Mary Kom’s achievement, she deserved a major award. Boxing and shooting were supposed to be male-oriented sport, now we have Indian women world champions. I strongly feel that recognition for women achievers and sportspersons in Olympic events should be on a par with their achievements. Otherwise, what is the point in asking questions about India’s difficulty in winning more medals at the Olympic Games? We need to give visible recognition to achievers, the way cricket victories are appreciated and cricketers honoured.

The petroleum companies’ support for Indian badminton is evident from the number of top internationals employed with them. Your views on what the future generations stand to benefit from the situation?

It is nice to see the cream of Indian badminton employed with the PSPB companies. The same example should be adopted by other corporate houses for other sport. PSPB’s support for developing badminton in India is worthy of praise, they support other games equally