By Betwa Sharma
Hyderabad: Saina Nehwal is currently the world’s No 1 women’s singles player in Badminton. The 25-year-old is only the second Indian (after Prakash Padukone) to have achieved the top ranking in Badminton and became the first Indian to win an Olympic medal in Badminton when she won the Bronze in London in 2012.
In a country where only a handful of women have achieved global competitiveness in any sport thanks to poor institutional support and indifferent infrastructure, Saina’s performance and perseverance has won the hearts of millions of Indians, even those who rarely follow any sport other than cricket. When she lost in the finals of the All-England Open Badminton Championship to the Spaniard Carolina Marin in March, the outpouring of support showed the extent of her fan following.
But Nehwal has made an impact in India, which is deeper and more permanent than a rank. As a woman athlete who has reached the top of her game, not allowing the relatively little support or sponsorship to come in the way, she inspires millions of young people and serves as an ambassador for badminton and sports.
The champion answered HuffPost India’s questions about life and the sport on email.
How does it feel to be World No. 1 again?
I have put in so much of hard work all these years, and to see those years of hard work finally bearing fruit now as me being No. 1, is very special. But with this the responsibilities are many fold as expectations keep on rising. However, I have never shied away from giving my best and I will continue to do so in the coming years.
Who is the first person you called to tell the World No. 1 news — the first time around?
My mom and dad are the two strong pillars of my life. My mom was present at Siri Fort Stadium but unfortunately my father could not join us. So it’s obvious–the first person I spoke to was my father. He sacrificed a lot for me and moved to a new city–Hyderabad–and now Bengaluru, only because of me. Hopefully, I have been able to repay the faith and trust he has shown in me.
Tell us about how you coped after losing out to the All England Badminton Open to Carolina Marin. How did you bounce back?
I feel bad when I think about the final. I don’t know what happened to me in the third game. It was like I was out of control. Carolina is a good player and due credit goes to her for raising the ante. I returned from England with lot of introspection on my game and trained hard for the Yonex Sunrise India Open. The Superseries victory and being World No.1 shows the dedication and devotion I have for the game and it was a satisfying feeling after the All England Badminton Open Final loss.
Are you friends with some of your professional rivals?
I am friendly with all the players of badminton but on court our attitude change as we prefer not to lose because of these relations.
Could you share that one moment in your professional career that absolutely stand out.
The one moment that stands out, and I rate it bigger than World No 1 rank, is the medal I won at the London Olympics, 2012 and the Indian national anthem being played in the background. I can’t express the feeling I was going through at that point of time.
What has been the hardest time in your career?
The last year has been the toughest year for me. Every loss, every talk about my poor form, my change of coaches, it was a very tough period for me. In fact, I was thinking about quitting after the World Championship. I had to overcome a lot of odds to return to top form and that’s a huge thing for me.
What are the challenges of being a sportswoman in India?
To get better infrastructure and best coaches is a problem to most of the sportspersons, either men or women, in India. I was lucky that I got all these basic needs at my home in Hyderabad. All coaches and players in badminton helped me to get the best of badminton. I didn’t feel any discrimination being a sportswoman in India.
What do you make of Sania Mirza becoming No. 1 in tennis women’s doubles during the same time? Do you feel a connection with her as a duo who is breaking new ground for Indian women in sports?
There was a time when no one expected that India can emerge as a major sporting powerhouse, but today I am sure they will have second thoughts. It is a huge achievement and I completely understand what kind of sacrifices and hard work goes into reaching there. India has two World No 1s and I hope and pray the number only increases from here on.
The outlook towards sports has changed since our success at the Olympic stage. Families encourage their daughters and children to take up sports. And I hope there will be many more Saina Nehwals and Sania Mirzas.
You’re World No. 1 now, you’re an Olympic medalist, What’s the next milestone in your life?
The aim has always been to play for the country and bring laurels. It remains the same.
How many hours do you train in a day. What do you do when you’re not playing badminton?
I train for eight hours daily. Four hours on court and four hours off court, in the gym. I usually watch a movie on Friday to take my mind off the game since I shifted to Bengaluru.
And your favourite movie is?
I am big SRK fan and my favourite movie is DDLJ.
— The Huffington Post