She may have missed her chance at bagging the coveted Olympic gold at the age of 18, but ace badminton player Saina Nehwal refuses to let that deter her from winning streak

SHE’S LIKE THE young Sachin Tendulkar of badminton; full of promise, confident of her game, and ambitious like no other. Unfortunately, the recognition garnered by the to-notch cricketer in his early days still evades her.


The reason? Well, let’s allow the lady in question, the world’s fifth best badminton player Saina Nehwal, to field that one, shall we?

“As you already know, in India people love cricket – it’s considered the world’s best sport,” the 20-year-old summarises for us when we catch up with her during her brief visit to the BITS Pilani - Dubai campus nestled in Academic City.

“It’s a little sad. Other countries have 60 to 70 gold medals to their credit. And we have only one or two. We have the second largest population in the world. But we just don’t get enough support from the sponsors.”

Nehwal further elaborates that from money to proper infrastructure, to good coaches to even capable physiologists, there’s a lot missing when it comes to the country’s other sports.

“We need these things to be champions. Sometimes the junior players have to buy their own rackets, shoes and equipment, which costs nothing short of 20 to 30 thousand rupees (aprroximately two to three thousand dirhams). Honestly, who can afford that much?”

Phrased like that, the situation is enough to rouse an angry mob, complete with pitchforks and makeshift torches. But the badminton player promises us there’s hope.

“Nowadays, the Badminton Federation of India is really helping a lot, since there are so many senior players that are doing well. The juniors also seem to be getting more attention these days.”

And that’s something that Nehwal asserts is essential – ensuring that the younger players get all the exposure they need. In fact, she’s a firm supporter of children hitting the proverbial court as soon as possible.

“A player becomes professional only if they start early enough. You cannot decide at the age of 15 that you want to be a champion. By the age of seven you should have taken up whichever game you want to seriously.”

A view that definitely errs on the controversial side. Most parents are keen to see their kids with a Bachelor’s degree in hand, even if they’re destined to be renowned sports personalities.

But Nehwal is one of the few to have given up the university lifestyle in favour of dedication to sport.

“I don’t get time to go to university,” she dismisses. “I’m training pretty seriously and now that I’m in the top five, I want to focus only on the game. I don’t want to take breaks to study for exams, put on weight and then start training again. It doesn’t work like that. Maybe when I’m done playing I can complete my graduation.”

Meanwhile, Nehwal is still privy to all the criticism that seems to perpetually accompany fame. Everything from slight slip-ups to her performance at the last Olympics has been subjected to the sharp eyes of her detractors.

Having made the quarter-finals, with a prominent lead, the badminton player eventually conceded defeat to her opponent. Obviously, the critics had a lot to say about Nehwal’s ‘poor’ form.

“People really tend to criticise me when I lose a match. And the Olympic gold medal is my dream. But I was focusing more on the semis – it happens.

“I refuse to take advice from people who are willing to dish it out but don’t know a single thing about badminton. Touch wood, my parents and coaches have always been behind me. I’m performing well because of their support. They never told me to stop and sit back at home.”

Nehwal’s also credits her recent winning streak to her mentor-turned-coach, former All England Open Badminton Champion, Pullela Gopichand.

While the coach makes her spend a bare minimum of nine to ten hours on court training, he also prescribes a blend of meditation to improve concentration, and weight training.

“Luckily I’m in good hands. On court, he’s very strict, and off the court, he’s like a friend. He really knows what a player goes through when they play at these levels. I’ve been with him for four on five years. Before that, I was no one and now I’m in the top five. He’s improved everything from my strokes to my speed. He’s made me an international player.”

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