‘No predictions, please’

Formidable pair...Saina Nehwal gets some tips from her coachGopi Chand. “He (Gopi Chand) always plays with us and gives us encouragement at each and every moment during training,” says Saina.-S.S. KUMAR Formidable pair...Saina Nehwal gets some tips from her coachGopi Chand. “He (Gopi Chand) always plays with us and gives us encouragement at each and every moment during training,” says Saina.

“In London, I will try my best to live up to the expectations of all the Indians,” says Saina Nehwal. By V. V. Subrahmanyam.

In the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics in London, Saina Nehwal says that she is in the most decisive phase of her career. The 22-year-old player, who is India’s best medal hope in badminton, is focussed on fine-tuning her game ahead of what she believes is the ultimate test for an athlete. However, she takes time off her demanding training schedule to talk to Sportstar.

Question: How do you look at your journey so far in world badminton?

Answer: Frankly, it has been fascinating. It looks as if I took up the sport (at the Lal Bahadur Stadium in Hyderabad) only the other day even though 12 years have gone by. Those motivating me are my family members, coaches, especially Gopi Sir (Pullela Gopi Chand), my team-mates and the almighty God. It looks like my journey has been on a fast track. Well, I haven’t yet opened some of the gifts I received three years ago. Accolades and brickbats from the media and relatives have been a part of the journey so far.

When you started playing badminton, what were your first impressions?

It was in May 1999 — it was a very joyful start. I was not well-versed in Telugu, so I did not have friends. But the racquet language (badminton) helped me become friends with many like Tarun, Guru Sai Dutt, Likhit, Siyadutt, Manjula and Anjana Reddy, to name a few. Within no time, I started enjoying the sport, more than my classes. No doubt, I feel deprived losing my golden days of childhood because of this.

What exactly made you take up the sport seriously?

Almost everything about badminton was fascinating. My first win in the under-10 category at a sacred place like Tirupati was memorable. Honestly, a report in the sports pages of The Hindu in 2001 made me feel like a hero.

How significant was the contribution of your first coaches when you first attended the summer camp at the Fateh Maidan Indoor Stadium in 1998?

There were quite a few coaches who made a big impact (on me) very early in my career. They included the late Nani Sir, Arif Sir and Goverdhan Reddy (SAAP coach) after the early exposure to the sport, thanks to Mahboob Ali Sir. In 2004, I was formally with Gopi Sir, who changed the course of my career. But I must confess that it was Nani Sir who was instrumental in identifying me from a huge crowd at the summer camp. He forced my parents to put me in badminton.

What major hurdles did you face initially when you started playing badminton?

Not much really. Everyone encouraged me a lot from the start. It was my father who faced all the hardship.

Who has been your biggest source of inspiration?

I have had good support from all people concerned. Particularly, my selfless parents, Gopi Sir and all my team-mates who made me the player I am by being my sparring partners in practice matches. Then, later on, the support of Mittal Champion Trust, Deccan Chronicle, Olympic Gold Quest, my employers Bharat Petroleum Company Limited for giving me a job and promotions regularly. Well, when the Parliament gave me a standing ovation four times on my Super Series wins, it was a great feeling; it inspired me to do better. The support of the governments of Andhra Pradesh, Haryana (which offered me the post of a DSP) and Maharashtra was equally great.

With whom do you normally share your moments of joy and agony?

With my parents. They give me the right direction and encouragement irrespective of me winning or losing. I always have long telephonic chats with them from abroad too to keep myself motivated. Even Gopi Sir plays a big role here.

What exactly has the sport taught you?

I can only say discipline, both in sport and in life.

As a world beater, what critical introspection would you like to make?

See, there is always scope for improving. As they say, no one can be perfect. Learning is a continuous process, and the more you keep picking up finer aspects of the game the better you will be as a player. I always go with a positive frame of mind to an event — to win. The result may not be the same every time, but I will always put in the effort. I train a lot for hours to reach the desired levels. I am fully satisfied with the training schedule and the strategies of Gopi Sir. I try to improve with each and every tournament.

I don’t believe in rankings. I want to be on top always and for that I really work hard. If I am not satisfied with my performance in any tournament, I will return to training and not indulge in sight-seeing or engage in some amusements.

You have been widely regarded as one player who can breach what was once the impregnable ‘Chinese Wall’...

It is true my performances are liked by all the viewers of my game. I have great satisfaction especially in beating a number of Chinese players in the recent past. I think I have proved repeatedly that the Chinese are beatable. All you need (to beat the Chinese) is a little more determination. After all, they are also human beings.

Are you forced to change your strategy and technique for each tournament?

No, it is not like that. It is the overall performance of the player that matters. Everyone changes as per the given situation in different events and conditions. Speed of draft and dampness/dryness are the key factors in your strategy. Accordingly, we have to adjust, quickly.

Now coming to the big issue, how are your preparations for the London Olympics?

Gopi Sir is taking full care of training. Every aspect of training — on court and off court including diet and exercises — is in the daily schedule. Whatever corrections we need to make before the Olympics, we are working on them. I am confident that everything will be in place before the Games. All that I am looking forward to is to be injury-free.

What makes Gopi Chand so special as a coach?

The biggest advantage with him is that he himself was in the top-three in the world. He is a task-master; he always plays with us and gives us encouragement at each and every moment during training. More importantly, he is cordial, friendly and doesn’t behave like a coach. He is more of a mentor.

In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, you were a quarterfinalist. What can your fans and millions of Indians expect from you this time?

Yes, it was a big loss for me, but honestly it made me a bigger player later on. I was definitely happy to be a quarterfinalist as no Indian woman had achieved it before. But this time, I will try my best to live up to the expectations of all the Indians. I am more experienced now and better off in fighting back from losing situations. And my fitness is at its best.

Who do you think will be the biggest threat in your quest for a medal in London?

Can’t name anyone. The cream of world badminton will be there. I have to be at my best in each match. Sometimes, even a world champion can get knocked out early. So, no predictions, please. I wish to take it match by match.

* * * Short takes

What Saina Nehwal does when not playing: I like to sleep on holidays after six days of hectic schedules.

What she misses the most in life because of badminton: May be, there are more gains than losses (smiles). Definitely, I lost some of the best days which everyone wishes to go through during childhood because of badminton. But I have gained so much that everything else pales into insignificance.

Her sentiments: Well, I believe in God, but other things don’t matter. I dress nicely as per the dress given by Yonex. I don’t ask them to give me any particular colour (of clothing) or racket.

Movies she watches: Once in two to three weeks. Simple Hindi movies.

Childhood film stars she enjoys watching even now: Oh! I am a big fan of Shah Rukh Khan.

Most memorable moment outside badminton: When I met superstars of yesteryear like Dharmendra. I liked him a lot.

Her biggest regret in life: Nothing really. I am satisfied with everything in my life. I am enjoying every bit of it now.

The defining moment of her career: My early wins in the age-group tournaments gave momentum to my career. Honestly, I never faced difficulties in my career.

If she wasn’t a badminton player: I would have been a doctor.

Her favourite dish: One ‘roti’ with a curry and a little salad. ‘Mango shake’ I like the most. I like ‘parathas’ too. But these are fancy things now for me because of my career.

Sportspersons she admires the most: Roger Federer and Sachin Tendulkar. And also Sharapova. I admire them for their determination, cool temperament and, most importantly, their humility despite achieving such greatness.