A cople of years ago, I was shooting the breeze with Prakash Padukone and catching up with the latest in Indian and world badminton. I asked him about the new crop of talent in our country and he singled out Saina Nehwal. "She's our best bet for the future," he said while pointing out that the teenager had tremendous potential. Now that the 19-year old from Hyderabad has not only broken into top 10 ranking but also won the Super Series event in Indonesia, it is just a matter of time before Saina emulates Prakash by attaining the No.1 spot.
In a way, Saina is fulfilling a long cherished dream of an Indian woman badminton player reaching the pinnacle in her field. Over a quarter of century ago, a teenager called Madhumita Goswami (now Bisht) from Kolkata had burst on the scene with a series of stunning victories against top notch players like Ami Ghia, for long the National champion. Madhu, as we then called her, went on to win the National title many times and internationally, scored a few notable victories.
At that time, Madhu was different from other women players with her speed, power, balletic footwork and court coverage. She was the darling of the crowd and her refreshing style of play was in keeping with the trend then. It was a time when the Chinese had re-entered mainstream badminton after several years of self-imposed isolation and of course, Prakash at his peak having won the All-England championship and ranked No.1 in men's singles. However, Madhu flattered to deceive and though she had no opposition at home, she didn't perform consistently at the highest level despite the obvious potential and talent.
After Madhu faded out, yet another teenager, Aparna Popat rose through the ranks and raised hopes of cracking the top-10 ranking. Aparna was faster than Madhu and with Prakash guiding her at his academy in Bangalore, the Pune lass did create a stir on the international stage. But then, like other Indian players before her, Aparna was not consistent enough and often lost matches from winning positions against some of the best players in the World.
A frustrated Prakash was to comment that Aparna fell short in finishing off her opponent and the absence of that all-important extra edge, besides her fitness level, was her biggest failing. "She is a very committed player and has all the strokes in the book, but I feel that she needs to get tougher mentally and physically to win the big matches more consistently. If she can cross that hurdle, nothing can stop her from moving to the top," Prakash had said then.
Unfortunately, a series of injuries gradually weighed her down and eventually, she, like Madhu before her, faded from the scene leaving behind an unfulfilled dream. In this context, Saina's performances and her consistency mark her for greater glory. Fitter and faster than any of her peers, she has the attributes to become the next World champion from India after Prakash.
During his salad days, Prakash believed that the competition in India or rather the lack of it, tended to magnify a player's achievements and performances on the domestic scene. Looking ahead to his own future, Prakash opted to shift base to Copenhagen, Denmark soon after winning the All-England title in 1980. Not surprisingly, he improved by leaps and bounds.
However, the scenario is different these days, feels Prakash when I called him for his reaction and with India boasting of international standard infrastructure and resources, Saina is not required to look at a foreign base. "Saina has reached a stage where she will get anything she wants. She only needs to focus on her game and I am sure, rest will fall into place," he said.
So what next for Saina? I think, sky is the limit for her provided of course she stays away from injuries and not get carried away by her own achievements. I will reserve the final word for Prakash who said: "Saina is a complete player and I wouldn't be surprised if she becomes World No.1 sooner than later."
More power to Saina's arms!