Making of a champion - Saina Nehwal

Saina Nehwal, the newest entrant in the celebrity cult of Indian sports, is humble, straight-forward, polite, and a no-fuss person; she enjoys her popular status but wears it lightly. 'I heard somewhere that a couple named their daughter after me! This fan following feels awesome. I feel proud that I have made badminton so popular in India. But I want more,' she says.


Even when you enter her home, you don't see any trace of a "celebrity". The living room and the dining space are done up modestly, and her bedroom is almost bare, no shine here. Saina laughs, 'I grew up very modestly. We only live with what's necessary. I don't want to make my room chaotic with things I don't need.' And then you spot the cabinet with all the golds, the silvers and the bronzes in it, and you know where the shine lies. 'These medals have become her identity,' says Saina's father, Dr Harvir Singh, a scientist.

When we met Saina, she was straining to recover from a leg injury she had sustained while working out on the treadmill. 'I have missed a few matches because of this. I am really hoping that it heals in time for the championship coming up in London. I get angry at myself if I get injured. I feel irresponsible if I miss matches because I wasn't being too careful. There's no room for imperfections if you want to be the world champion.' No surprise that ambition and determination run side by side in the champ. Saina is quite the pampered one at home - 'I am the younger of the two siblings, so I was spoilt from the beginning, not just by my parents but by my sister too. She is married now, but when she visits us, I have her make aloo parathas specially - it's not allowed in my diet otherwise.'

Making of a champion

Currently amongst the world top five in badminton (and the first Indian woman to have reached so high), Saina, says her father, 'is obsessive about the game.' He adds, 'Saina isn't the most gifted player, but she has worked hard for every tournament that she has won. She got opportunities and she explored them, and she was patient.' Candid assessment from a parent of so talented a child. But Saina's parents have always been this way. While encouraging her in every way, they did not build up a halo around her, and kept her grounded. Saina started playing badminton at the age of eight, in 1998, when her father moved from Hissar, Haryana, where she was born, to Hyderabad, for work. 'I had no friends here and so Dad said, "Why don't you join badminton?" So, I started playing with him and my Mom.'

Saina's talent was first spotted a couple of months later at a badminton camp. 'She was an instant hit at the camp. The coaches saw a lot of potential in her and encouraged me to bring her to the camp regularly. When I saw her compete with other children, I knew my daughter could make the big league - maybe part of it was her good strokes, and part of it wishful thinking on my part, but I was ready to struggle with her!' says Dr Singh.

The training camp was 25km away. Father and daughter would take off on their scooter at dawn to be there on time at 6am every day. 'The camp used to last for two hours. Then I used to rush her to the school, where she'd mostly be late, and the prayers would have begun. I would go on to my office. Work was again followed by badminton coaching in the evening closer to home, then both of us would come back, have dinner and just fall off to sleep, only to follow this same schedule the next day. Her mother, in the meanwhile, would make sure that both of us were eating right and staying fit. This routine was our foundation and inspiration.'

Racing Ahead With The Game

Championships followed - first at the district and state level - and then at national level. Dr Singh, looking back at the decade of the "making of Saina Nehwal", says, 'These victories were mentioned in newspapers. When she had just started playing, I had shared my dream of making her a national champ with my relatives and they had laughed at me. Some of the senior family members had said, "Ladka bawla ho gaya hai." Soon, I had paper clippings to prove that I was serious. I remember, one of her tournaments was held in Tirupati, which she won. I had taken her to the Balaji temple there and prayed for strength, to be able to do all that it took to make her a good player.'

Saina, talking about her career, and her inspiration, says, 'I learnt from my parents. I started playing the game at an age when I was very impressionable. Seeing them work so hard for me made me go the extra mile at every camp and tournament. I learnt that you have to sacrifice a lot, if you want to win. I missed a lot of things in my childhood - friends, going out for picnics, idle Sundays, cartoons, but then the trophies I got made up for it!' Clearly driven from childhood, Saina is not one to brood over missing the joys of her growing up years!

Even today, Saina says that she doesn't have many friends, besides the ones from the fraternity who she plays with - 'and even with them, you really can't be friends, as there's always an element of rivalry and jealousy.' So, who does she turn to for advice? 'I share my emotions with Mom. When I am losing it because I am nervous, or getting depressed when things are not going my way, I speak to her. We play video games and go for movies together when I have time. She is an inspirational person. She was a badminton player too, so we discuss the game, and she gives me tips on how to play an opponent.' Saina's mother, Usha Nehwal, was a state-level badminton player from Haryana. Dr Nehwal says that Saina has been influenced by her mother in her strokes. 'Usha has a good wrist and she can look at a player's movements and tell you how they play, their moves. She used to stop Saina during the games to tell her if she was playing right or not,' he says.

Saina says that her inspiration to play came from her father, but her inspiration to always win, or lose in the right way, came from her mother. 'I lost an under-10 nationals and Mom got really angry. She had seen me play and thought I hadn't given it my all. That is when she told me that I should leave fear in the green room when I come out to play. When you have got to perform, you cannot let your opponent overwhelm you. At the same time, you have to be careful of how your opponent is behaving and playing. It's a mind game as much as it is physical.'

Good Pressure vs Bad Pressure

Saina's prodigious success story does lead to some questions. How much pressure is good pressure for your child? And how do you take care that your child doesn't snap under the need to perform? Dr Singh says, 'When Saina began playing, we didn't tell her that she had to bring home a medal. We just told her that if she played with complete dedication and gave the game her all, she stood a good chance of winning. She stood 2nd in her first tournament - she was happy, but also let down that she hadn't gotten the 1st place. Then she strived for that from the next match.' Adds Saina, 'Since my parents knew that I enjoyed playing badminton, they didn't pressurise me to be the topper in my class. They let me concentrate on my game, as long as I passed my exams.' That said, Saina says that much is made out of the pressure that parents put on their children to perform. 'I am all for tough conditioning - we live in a tough world too, and the competition is great! Of course, parents shouldn't push their child towards something that they don't have the aptitude for, but if a child has some talent, then the parents should definitely hone it. I will bring up my children in exactly the same way as my parents brought me up.'
Dr Nehwal points out, 'Saina is a very simple and ordinary girl. Her attitude, her thoughts, her approach to life, her body language - everything is "normal". She just has determined parents who wanted to work hard with her. Don't force your child but whatever opportunity she gets, let her explore it. There's time, patience and money involved - but you have to afford it. Children need to be given a chance, yes, but they also need parents who pay attention.'

Living With The Stars

Saina's fans are not just limited to young badminton players and parents wanting to name their daughters after her. She has formed a mutual admiration club with Aamir Khan! 'He messages me when I am going to play an important match. I got to know him during the Padma Shri awards. He knew me and told me that he also plays badminton, and is good at it, but not as good as me. Then he invited me to Mumbai to play with him some time. We have not been able to make time for it as yet, but some day we will.' Even though I know the answer, I still ask her who her favourite Bollywood celebrity is. 'Of course, Aamir Khan. He is an icon. For me, he has changed the face of Indian cinema,' she says. Wherever there is celebrity status, there are endorsements, ads, and movies! Saina is the face of several leading brands today. 'Endorsements are fun, but I got these deals only because I brought home those medals. My manager takes care of all such deals and keeps the ads in control.'

Saina admits that she was offered a movie 'or something' recently - 'but I am not even sure what exactly it was!' Ask her to elaborate further, and she explains, 'She (her manager) didn't even let me know about the offer till much later when she had already said "no" on my behalf. She is concerned about my game and ensures that I do it only when I am not playing. I know the importance of the media - it's a circle, when you become popular, people want to cover you. The more you are covered, the more popular you become it's also good money.'

Going Forward

Sania has a single aim right now: The Olympic Gold. 'I am not going to settle for less. I know I can do it, if I set my mind to it.' But she does have some plans for beyond - 'I am also looking at helping prepare more children for international badminton events. There is a lack of facilities, but there's also a lack of will. I want more and more Indian women to pick up the racket.' Her father, referring to the Asian Games, where Saina lost in the quarterfinals, says, 'That quarterfinal had four women from the same region. If we had more Indian women playing, then even if Saina lost, another Indian would have picked the trophy. Our aim is to be able to fund talented children who can bring home more trophies.' The going's good for Saina - 'some people work well when they know that great things are expected of them. Saina is amongst those people,' says her father. The champion adds to this: 'I know that the eyes of the entire nation will be on me when I get to London in 2012. My only wish is that I don't let them down.' Amen to that!

Content Courtesy: Good Housekeeping