Of Saina and her remarkable surge

Saina Nehwal celebrates after winning the Indonesian Open Super Series title.-AP

Right from the time she shocked World No. 5 Wang Chen on way to the quarterfinals of the 2008 Beijing Olympics to her stupendous victory over World No. 3 Lin Wang in the final of the Indonesian Open Super Series recently, Saina Nehwal’s progress has been sure and steady. By V. V. Subrahmanyam.

Robin Soderling’s defeat of Rafael Nadal in the fourth-round at the 2009 French Open proved to be a huge inspiration for Saina Nehwal. “Papa, when someone like Soderling can outclass Nadal in his own backyard — on clay court — why should not I think of beating the big players. I have to switch gears mentally the next time I face them,” said the 19-year-old shuttler to her father after watching the World No. 1 fall at the French Open.

According to Saina’s father Dr. Harvir Singh, a scientist, the immense self-belief his daughter got after watching Soderling defeat Nadal is a decisive moment that can change the course of her career itself. “I tell you, after that match there was a sea-change in Saina’s attitude and she suddenly started talking very confidently about facing the Chinese players. This kind of attitude was never before seen in her,” he recalled.

The fact that Saina scripted her own piece of history a few days after the French Open by becoming the first Indian woman ever to win a Super Series title with a remarkable, come-from-behind victory over World No. 3 Lin Wang, 12-21, 21-18, 21-9 in 49 minutes, was perhaps proof of her new-found confidence.

Clearly, Saina, who is based in Hyderabad, belongs to a rare breed of players — she not only promises, but also performs out there on the court with a high degree of consistency. Badminton is there in her genes — her mother, Usha Nehwal, was Haryana State champion, while her father was a University champion.

What is remarkable about Saina is that learning seems to be an eternal process for her and she never stops learning. An intense desire to be right there at the top is discernible in every aspect of her life.

When Harvir Singh moved from Haryana to Hyderabad in 1998 to take over as the Head of Department (Crop Protection) in the Directorate of Oil Seeds Research of ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research), no one knew of Saina for obvious reasons — she had just finished her third standard in school. However, when she picked up the racket for the first time at the Fateh Maidan indoor stadium, Saina took the SAAP coach Nani Prasad by surprise. “He told us that this girl will go places if we put her in badminton,” Harvir reminisced.

“Many of the trainees take days to grip the racket the way she did, with so much ease and confidence. That was an unforgettable sight,” recalled Nani Prasad.

And Saina served a warning note by winning her first ever title in a summer coaching camp tournament in 1999. This was possible because of some invaluable tips that Goverdhan Reddy, a SAAP consolidated coach, gave Saina.

Interestingly, Dronacharya Award winner S. M. Arif was not initially keen on drafting the young Saina into his camp for fear of being accused of taking away a trainee from the opposite camp even though Nani Prasad was transferred to Vijayawada. And only after getting a written consent did Arif pick Saina.

From 2000 onwards, Arif worked on Saina’s raw talent and transformed her into a quality player. “As a kid she showed the seriousness and attitude to work hard and never complained of heavy workload. She was always willing to play for long hours. She had all the qualities needed to be a champion,” Arif said.

“She was very strong physically, so we focused on her footwork, strokes and rallies to make her very positive. This was the foundation we ensured when she trained with us,” he added.

Hail Saina... the Indonesian Open Super Series winner gets a rousing reception on arrival at the Hyderabad Airport.-NAGARA GOPAL

Once Arif retired in 2004, the responsibility of training Saina, who was ranked World No. 198 then, fell on the former All England champion and Chief National Coach Pullela Gopi Chand. And the rest is history.

The transformation of a player with immense potential into a truly world-class performer was almost complete, especially in the last 16 months or so.

According to Gopi Chand, the secret of Saina’s success is that she never cheated either the sport or the coach. “Looking at her parents as facilitators and the coach as a mentor, she diligently implemented whatever plan of action we had on hand for her,” said Gopi.

Not many athletes in contemporary sport can match this World No. 7 in her commitment and unwavering concentration levels. “She is a delight for any coach,” said Gopi. “I have not seen her deviate from anything which is prescribed to her — be it the diet or the hours of training programme.”

Importantly, Saina’s father realised that his daughter’s future lay in badminton and nowhere else. Interestingly, Saina won the Philippines Open and the Asian Satellite titles in 2006 even before she became the senior national champion in 2007. Her class was never in doubt.

But what really catapulted Saina to a new high was her shock victory over World No. 5 Wang Chen (Hong Kong) on way to the quarterfinals of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Though she failed to enter the semifinals, losing to World No. 16 Maria Kristin Yulianti, Saina’s performance at the Games made her believe that she belonged to the elite group.

The victory at the Chinese Taipei Open after the Olympics was symbolic of Saina’s growing stature in the world of badminton. Soon she won the Commonwealth Youth Games and the World junior titles in Pune late last year to confirm her status as the premier shuttler from India.

That was the phase when Saina felt there was no point in just making a first or a second round appearance. “You have to be highly consistent to achieve new goals,” she kept saying.

Saina did just that, entering the 2008 World Super Series semifinal in Kuala Lumpur last December. By her own admission, Saina felt like a kid in the Super Series. Six months later, after the Indonesian Open triumph, Saina feels like she is on top of the world. What a transformation!

The champion shuttler, who is an executive officer (sports) in BPCL, knows very well that she is already one of the most studied players. “Definitely, I still see at least seven video cameras shooting my matches. But, let me remind you that my preparations will also be of a different level in the days to come. And I don’t want to promise too many things about the World Championship in August this year. But I am keen to prove a point or two in front of my home crowds. They are always a big source of inspiration. For instance, in the Indonesian Open final, the entire crowd was for me and I felt like playing at home,” Saina said.

She is of the view that she needs to improve her backhand or else the other girls will catch up with her.

The victory at the Indonesian Open was significant considering that Saina still appeared to be haunted by the Beijing Olympics loss. “It is very difficult for me to forget it. I was so close to victory. I should have wrapped it up,” she said. Saina still agonises about that defeat.

However, after winning her maiden Super Series title, Saina seems to have overcome the huge mental block. “Yes, now don’t I belong to the elite group?” she asked with a big smile.

What does the latest achievement mean for Saina?

“I have great confidence now in taking on the Chinese players. It is certainly not over-confidence. That huge mental block of facing them should be a thing of the past now. I may not necessarily win all the matches against them but I should be able to play more freely against them,” Saina explained.

What has really pleased her mentor and coach Gopi is the manner in which his most famous trainee is shaping up at the critical phase of her career. “This is the phase when the best of talent drifts away for want of focus. Thankfully, she seems to be more focused than ever before,” he remarked.

But he had a word of caution for Saina. “She is playing the power game right now. There is an element of risk as even small mistakes will be exploited by the rivals now. She has to be really careful,” he said.

* * * Getting her priorities right

Badminton enthusiasts and fans of Saina Nehwal, who protested vehemently against the player for skipping the National Championship in Indore in February, must now be feeling regretful.

Not only Saina, but also the top seed in the men’s section, Chetan Anand, had given the Nationals a go-by. The top seeds in both the men’s and women’s sections withdrawing from the championship gave the Indore Nationals a dubious distinction. However, the concern at that time was more on Saina’s absence, which the organisers got to know only at the last minute. The Organising Secretary, Anil Choughule, then said the glamour and class of the championship had been robbed. “How can I explain to the very many sponsors and fans?” he lamented. Incidentally, the organisers had displayed posters of the world junior champion and India’s new badminton star at several important junctions in Indore as part of the build-up to the Nationals.

When enquired, her personal coach Gopi Chand (who is also the National coach) revealed that “she was undergoing rehabilitation physiotherapy for her sore right shoulder.”

Learning of Saina’s inability to participate in the Nationals very late, understandably, made the organisers react the way they did. They even blamed the Badminton Association of India for “keeping the organisers in the dark.”

Maestro Prakash Padukone, who had graced the championship, too could not escape probing questions from the media. Ever the gentleman, Prakash made it clear that if a player was genuinely injured then little could be done about it. He also said that after the experience of a major tournament in Mumbai earlier, when some leading players had pulled out, the sport would be the greatest sufferer if players begin to skip tournaments.

However, Saina knew what her priorities were — she wanted to make her mark at the international level. Even though her efforts to put up a good show at the All England championship did not materialise, the ‘Saina surge’ began then, culminating in the triumph at the Indonesian Open Super Series tournament.

Even her critics would agree that not playing at the Indore Nationals was a small disappointment when compared with her other great performances in her growing career. It was indeed a wise decision by Saina to skip the tournament to take care of her niggling injury.

S. R. Suryanarayan