Saturday, June 27, 2009

Saina soars high

M. S. Unnikrishnan on badminton ace Saina Nehwal, the first Indian to win a Super Series title and one of the only two “outsiders” among the top 10 in women’s ranking, otherwise dominated by Chinese players

Saina Nehwal has conquered new frontiers which no Indian woman shuttler could ever dream of achieving in the past. Saina’s title win at the Super Series Badminton Championship in Djarkata (Indonesia) last week was at par with a Grand Slam victory in tennis.

Super Series is the highest category in badminton. The win fetched her 900 points. Her world ranking will now go up from the present eighth to the sixth place. She also earned $18,750 as prize money and will get Rs 2 lakh reward from the Badminton Federation of India.

But more than the money, what has gladdened her fans is the manner in which she bested the field, which consisted of eight of the top 10 players in the world.

The 19-year-old shuttler has vastly improved her game since winning the World Junior Championship. She bagged the 2006 Philippines Open, 2008 Chinese Taipei Open and entered the quarterfinal of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games to make her mark in the international arena.

At Beijing, she upset World No 5 and fourth seed Wang Chen of Hong Kong in a three-game thriller, but in the quarterfinal she lost a close three-game battle to then world No 16 Maria Kristin Yulianti.

She lifted the silver in the 2004 Commonwealth Youth Games and gold at the 2008 edition, held at Pune, and a bronze at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. She has a bagful of other titles too, and no wonder she was named the Most Promising Player in 2008.

After the Super Series win, Saina’s world ranking will go up from the present eighth to the sixth place.
After the Super Series win, Saina’s world ranking will go up from the present eighth to the sixth place. — AFP photos

She is well on her way to the top slot in ranking, as at present, Saina and Danish World No 2 Tine Rasmussen are the only two "outsiders" among the top ten in women’s ranking, otherwise dominated by Chinese players. Saina has put in tremendous hard work to reach where she is now. An attacking player, who brings subtlety and variation in her game to fox her opponents, she defends well to stonewall opposition.

"It’s my best performance so far," exulted the young lass after lifting the Super Series crown. Her next stop would be the Malaysian Grand Prix at Johar Bahru, though the World Championship, slated to be held in Hyderabad in August, would really test her mettle

"It’s a huge victory and big day for Indian sports", remarked her coach and mentor Pullela Gopichand. In fact, Saina’s is the biggest sporting achievement by a badminton player since Gopichand’s All-England Championship triumph in 2001. In the past, men had brought the big trophies in badminton — Dinesh Khanna won the Asian Championship in the 1960s, Prakash Padukone annexed the All-England title in 1980 and Vimal Kumar won the French Open title twice.

Prakash was the first Indian badminton super star, who became the No 1 in the world, but the women players of his time could rarely create a ripple. Saina is determined to change the no-hoper image of Indian women shuttlers, though Aparna Popat had ruled the senior domestic circuit ruthlessly, winning the National Championship title 13 times.

"She’s where she is because of her hard work and commitment," said her father Dr Harvir Singh Nehwal. In fact, the senior Nehwal himself had sacrificed much of his time and money to promote the badminton career of his talented daughter.

Saina should keep herself injury-free, raise her fitness level and speed up to beat the Chinese in their own game, and then aspire for the No 1 position. She has the will and determination to go places, and her capacity for hard work is something of an obsession. An uncompromising vegetarian, she started eating fish and chicken at the behest of Gopichand, only for the sake of badminton, as a vegetarian player could not have matched the endurance and stamina of the Chinese, the Koreans and the Malaysians. Since then, Saina has consistently beaten the higher-ranked Chinese players.

She rallied back to beat World No 3 Lin Wong of China 12-21, 21-18, 21-9 in 49 minutes at the Istora Senayan Stadium to capture the Super Series crown, and avenge her defeat to Wong at the Singapore Super Series a week earlier.

En route to the final, she had beaten another formidable Chinese, former World No 2 Lu Lan, to prove that she had the skill and the game to best the big guns in the business.

Her deceptive strokes, flicks and controlled net play have befuddled the Chinese. And she is faster and fitter. With a little more of mental toughness, Saina is capable of winning the toughest on-court battles. Saina’s practice sessions at the Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad stretch for hours, and the only luxury she allows herself is nine-hour sleep every night.

In fact the reason behind her success is her regimented and regulated life, which she would not change for anything. She strictly follows the training schedule and diet charted out by Gopichand and BAI’s foreign coach, Atik Jauhari of Indonesia. Born on March 17, 1990, at Hisar in Haryana, Saina was lucky that she could play the game so passionately, which both her parents — Dr Harvir Singh Nehwal and Usha Nehwal — were adept at, being the Haryana State champions. Saina got a good grounding in the game under Dronacharya Coach S. M. Arif in Hyderabad when her father, a scientist, was posted at the Directorate of Oilseeds Research at the Andhra capital. Coach Nani Prasad was the first to spot the hidden talent of the eight-year-old Saina when her father took her to the Lal Bahadur Shastri stadium in the heart of Hyderabad to enrol her in badminton.

Her father had to overcome financial hardship and personal discomforts to enable his daughter pursue the game. He did get some relief when in 2002 apparel and equipment makers Yonex came forward to sponsor her kit. Saina, too, was relieved when Bharat Petroleum Corporation took her into their payroll. Since then, it has been a smooth journey, bringing her unprecedented success. She is the reigning under-19 national champion, who lost to Aparna Popat in the senior title clash. She won the Asian Satellite Tournament twice, and lifted the four-star Philippines Open in 2006. She was also the runner-up in the World Junior Championship the same year, which she went on to capture in 2008. With India to host the World Championship this year, and the Commonwealth Games in 2010, Saina will get many opportunities to showcase her unbounded talent at home.