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The sceptics have not always been on the sidelines. But that hasn’t deterred the 19-year-old Hyderabadi from pursuing her dreams.
Billie Jean King once said that self awareness is probably the most important thing in a champion. And no one knows it better than Saina Nehwal. From the day she picked up a badminton racquet, her parents have been right behind her, but there were enough skeptics, and not always on the sidelines. Today, she is ranked among the top ten players in the world in badminton and has silenced those who had doubts about her ability. People actually look out for her results and while Nehwal says that it’s great to have popular support, she still believes in the mantra of working hard and believing in your own ability. "I am always ready for any challenges that come my way and they always spur me on," says the 19-year old from Hyderabad.
Born into a sporting family, both her parents were state-level champions in the game. Her father, Harvir Singh, a scientist with the Directorate of Oilseeds Research in Hyderabad, always had faith in her ability and took her to Nani Prasad Rao, the then badminton coach of the Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh (SAAP), who saw the immense potential in her.
"It all started in 1999 when Rao sir thought I had the potential to do well." After that, for two years she was under the tutelage of Rao, later taking training under Dronacharaya awardee S M Arif.
In the last few years she has been training under former All-England champion P Gopichand. She says that Gopichand has played a tremendous role in her career and she owes a lot to him. "He has helped me improve my game and is always there when I need any advice or support." The Commonwealth Games 2010 in New Delhi is something which she is extremely excited about. While India will have a lot of talented athletes in other disciplines, the money is on Nehwal to get India a medal. Do expectations bother her? Not at all, she says, as she puts more pressure on herself to scale up to expectations.
There are times when she is still confused with Sania Mirza, but she laughs off the comparisons. And rightly so — Nehwal’s achievements dwarf that of any other Indian athlete. In the last four years she has won seven major titles including the prestigious Chinese Taipei Open and reached the quarter finals of the Beijing Olympics. "I think I have achieved enough to have an identity of my own," she says modestly. But talk about Beijing and the disappointment is apparent. "That quarter final slipped too quickly from my hands and I should have done better," she says, rueing the fact that she missed out on an opportunity to bring glory to her country. It is a sign of her maturity that she rates Beijing as one of the finest moments of her career in terms of the overall experience. She turns 20 next month and has no regrets about not having what others might consider a ‘normal teenage life’. She meets her friends regularly, watches movies (she is a Shahrukh Khan fan) but the second-year student at St. Anne’s college in Hyderabad never gets time to attend college. "But it’s all good, I chose this path for myself and I am happy." Extra attention doesn’t bother her, nor does she have the interest or inclination to cultivate a glamorous image. Tri-colour hairclips are about the closest she comes to making a fashion statement. "I love reading mystery books and thrillers but rarely get the time these days to catch up on them, " she says.
Ranked number eight in the world, one of her goals for the year is to break into the top five. And there’s always room for improvement. "My backhand is still something which needs to be worked on," she says. It’s a continuous process but she’s not afraid of hard work. Training and sleeping are two things which take most of her time. She trains for at least eight to ten hours on a normal day. "It is hectic but you have to make sacrifices in pursuing your dreams," she says matter-of-factly.
Nehwal also believes that success and failure are to be dealt with equally and this is something her parents have taught her. "Of course, I feel elated when I win a tournament but I know there’s a lot still left to be achieved. Likewise for disappointments — I should not dwell on them too much."
She is keen to build on the success of last few years and top on the list is the Commonwealth Games, scheduled to be held in Delhi this October. "I won the bronze in the 2006 Games so my target this time is gold," she says. She knows that this year will be a tough run with the weight of expectations on her. But she is clear-sighted. "You have to work hard and be consistent whether you are number 6 in the world or number sixty." What Billie Jean said does hold true for this talented badminton player!