Saina Nehwal India’s New Icon
Two girls from Hyderabad with uncanny resemblance to their first names—Sania Mirza and Saina Nehwal—starting from the middle of the first decade of this century, rewrote records in Tennis and Badminton with such aplomb that made sporting faternity to sit and take note of them. Sania was hailed as the best thing to happen to Indian tennis after a long time and her being a Muslim was a added bonus. Intrestingly without winning a single big title, she became the first Indian women to be among the top 30 tennis players in the World. But some how she lost the track and the plot.
After Beijing Olympics, where she went despite not being fully fit, Sania Mirza never regained her form and ranking. She did manage to win Australian open mixed doubles but her showing in the singles was dismal.
Sania, after her marriage to Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik, has started playing again but has not been able to impress her opponents on the court. Her ranking has slipped to below 100 and given her present form it seems unlikely that she will be able to regain her previous ranking or even reach some where near 50th place.
Sania Mirza in her five year carrier broke down religion and gender barriers which helped her earn endorsement worth crores of rupees, which barring India’s top cricketers no other sportsperson ever got. She has been reduced to an also-ran on the world tennis circuit but Sania has declared that she will continue to play for the country and will represent it in the Commonwealth Games.
On the other hand unassuming
Saina Nehwal has shown tremandous determination, grit and concentration that she has become world number three in one of the most competitive sports—Badminton. Saina has maintained down to earth attitude and not lost sight of the target she has fixed for her self. It is not that Indian sports have only Sania and Saina to bank upon in the women section. Records show that several others have performed well and that too in very hostile conditions and brought laurales to the country.
There is a very long list of women athletes who saved India blushes when men failed miserably. The one glaring example is 1986 Seoul Asiad where country was represented by 300 plus contingent.
The overall Indian performance was dismal and country India won only five gold medals. Four of which were earned by PT Usha and the fifth was won by a wrestler. But here the discussion is on these two Hyderabad girls who broke into the world scene in the disciplines which was considered beyond Indian women. The present day sports has become very competitive and to some extent cruel. Those very fans who till yesterday swore their loyalty to Sania Mirza have now deserted her. It is not an exaggeration to say that while the Sania Mirza craze is dying, the Saina Nehwal mania is rising. The 20-year old is hogging the spotlight for all the right reasons.
Very rare has been the occasion when a non-cricket sportsperson was featured on the front pages of the national dailies and that too thrice in as many weeks. This distinction was achieved by Saina Nehwal who created history by becoming the first-ever Indian shuttler to win three super series titles. She also became the first Indian to win three international titles in a row—Indian Open at Chennai, Singapore and Indonesia Super series. She retained her Indonesian title when she beat Japanese Sayaka Sato 21-19, 13-21, 21-11 in Jakarta on June 21st.
Even before the win in Jakarta, she had moved in the world rankings to No 3. By virtue of those consecutive titles, the 20-year-old, is now just behind the Chinese duo of Yihan Wang and Xin Wang. Her previous best ranking was No 5, which she attained in March after becoming the first Indian woman to reach the semi-finals of the prestigious All England Super Series. Prior to these achievements, Saina had already achieved many firsts when she was in her teens. She was the first Indian to make it to the singles quarterfinals at the Olympics. In that year (2008) that she broke into the top 10 of the world and was first Indian to win the World Junior Championships. She surprised the world’s badminton fraternity on June 21, last year, becoming the first Indian to win a Super Series tournament after clinching the Indonesia Open with a stunning victory over higher-ranked Chinese Lin Wa.
Saina coach Pullela Gopichand
is very confident of Saina bringing more laurales to country. “It is a dream-come-true finish. Not very often does one see any shuttler win three big international titles in-a-row. This is a great for Indian badminton. Hope things will only keep improving”, Gopichand remarked, former coach Dronacharya SM Arif lavished praise on her protégé saying “I think she is the fittest and the strongest player in women’s circuit now on current form. Her string of victories is best thing to happen to Indian sport itself for not very often does an individual from India win three international titles in the space of three weeks. However her confidence of overcoming the odds has come as a pleasant surprise to her fans and admirers.
“I can become the world number one” she asserted when asked what her future plans are. She however is clear about her targets—world Championship, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games—but knows that she will be most marked player now in the International circuit. “Yes I am aware that I will be the most studied player now, but, it does not mean that I will be shying away from new strategies. There are areas like my defense which I need to improve in the days to come. The fitness level has to be really good. The challenges are bound to be tougher especially after winning these titles”, mature thinking by players who has her feet firmly on earth.
“I am not afraid of any player be it a Chinese or any body else”, she had said before the start of the semifinals of the Singapore open (which she won)”I have beaten the world number one Chinese player, so where is the question of my being scared” and this confidence and self belief is a rarity in Indian sports persons.
Saina now has eyes on Commonwealth Games: “I want to win it. I want to make my country proud by winning the Gold before the home fans” Saina was born in 1990 in Hisar (Haryana) but has spent her entire life in Hyderabad. Her father Dr Harvir Singh, a scientist at the Directorate of Oilseeds Research, Hyderabad and her mother Usha Nehwal, both of whom were former badminton champions in Haryana have been big infulence on her taking to this sport.
Saina took to the game at the age of eight and as they say has not looked back since then. In last 12 years she has traversed a path which many tried but failed. It was only in 2002, when sports brand Yonex offered to sponsor her kit. With her status and rankings improved, the sponsorships increased. In 2004, BPCL got her on their payroll, and next year Mittal Champions Trust spotted her. Saina Nehwal was awarded Arjuna award in 2009 and received Padma Shri next year. She is a brand ambassador of Deccan Chargers, an Indian Premier League team. Her coach Gopichand was also honoured with Dronacharya award in 2009.
At the beginning of this year, she said she was not bothered about rankings but was keen to and focuss her energies on premier tournaments. That strategy has worked with her winning three titles in a row and and also having made to the semis of two majors. About her future, Saina is very clear “I know it is very tough to stay at the top, but careful selection of tournaments so that there is enough time for rest, rehabilitation and training will give me better results. Any way my coach will take care of that.” “I think she is the most promising Gold medal prospect in the commonwealth”, said Badminton Association of India (BAI) chief VK Verma. “She has done Indian badminton proud and we have now high hopes from her not in the Commonwealth Games but also in the Asiad.” Verma added.
According to BAI chief India has very good chance of winning gold, couple of silvers in the Commonwealth Games. “There are six gold medals at stake… competitions will be held in Team event (October 4 to 8) followed by open events-men and women singles and doubles, men and women doubles and mixed doubles – Saina is our best bet but, we also expects medals in Mixed doubles (from Jwala Gutta V Diju) and it mostly will depend on draw. If we get good draw then we can end up with higher medal tally” he said about 18 to 20 countries are likely to send their teams for the Commonwealth games Badminton competition. The top medal contenders are likely to be Malaysia, Australia, England, Canada and Singapore. After legends like Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand, the girl from Hyderabad is the best thing to happen to Indian Badminton.
By Harpal Singh Bedi