As a teenager, how many of you think beyond passing a 12th class exam and becoming a world-class player?
Quite an unusual question, isn't it? But this is the story of an 18-year-old girl who by her sheer grit and talent has done things that ordinary people don't even dare to dream of. She's focused, she's charming, and oozing with confidence. Saina Nehwal, the first Indian sportswoman to reach the singles quarterfinals in badminton at the Olympics, has shocked the world by her remarkable show. She is the first Indian to win the World Junior Badminton Championship and has several elite tournament wins like the Philippines Open (2006) and the Chinese Taipei Open (2008) to her name. Her stupendous performance has elevated her to the elite zone of top ten players. The young lass recently earned the 10th spot in world rankings.
As Saina breaks into the world top ten, NDTV.com chats with the rising star and gets her talking about her love for the game, how cricket has stolen away the limelight from a single-handed sports like badminton and how she slogged every single day to reach the pinnacle of her career.
Congratulations Saina on being adjudged the most promising player of the year. How do you feel?
I am feeling great and I'm really happy about it. This is a big honor for me. I am all the more motivated now and it will make me work even harder towards winning more tournaments in future.
Recently, you made it to the world top ten. Does that give you a top-of-the-world feeling?
Thank you so much. No, not a top-of-the-world feeling but there's lot more to go to be on top of the world. I'm feeling great about being ranked 10th in the world now because last year I only aimed the 25th rung. I have played well in the middle of the season and I am very happy about it. From being 25th to entering top ten, I have taken a big leap of 15 rungs.
Whom do you want to dedicate your success to?
My coach Gopi Sir (former badminton player Pulela Gopichand) and my parents. They have worked hard with me. Gopi Sir has put in a lot of hard work in the training sessions. I also want to dedicate it to myself because I trained very hard and got to this level. God has been there for me and without his support I wouldn't be where I am today.
Do you think luck has played a role in your success or is it solely owing to your hard work?
Both. I was lucky enough that my hard work got paid. Everything counts and you need to have a bit of both to succeed. I think I'm lucky in the respect that I have hit the world top ten rankings as early as this.
What are your future plans?
I'll be playing the Malaysian Open and the Korean Open in January. And I'm really looking forward to the World Championship in my hometown Hyderabad next year. This month I will be training and preparing for the upcoming events.
What were the preparations that went into taking yourself and Indian badminton to the global map?
I just followed the same kind of training programme that any other badminton player does. Earlier I used to spend two hours on court but now I invest three to four hours there. I used to give my 100 per cent in each and every training session and never used to think about winning. I always took my training session as a tool to reach the world top ten or five some day in my life. I just thought of the tournaments lined up and how I wanted to compete. I think the way I'm playing now is inspiring junior players to come up and not get scared of any other good performers. Apart from me, there are many other Indian players who have performed well this year, which is excellent.
Do you think sports in India is a neglected field?
Yes, it is because there are people who follow cricket more than any other sport. I am now in the top ten and I have to keep winning the best of the tournaments to gain recognition. My performance at Beijing Olympics has changed the scenario of the game. The media is covering every single match of mine which is really good. Now being in the world top ten, things have changed. Every year you see me coming up in the rankings, that has pushed the government to come out in support. There are not many people who want to take up badminton and many of us are training even harder so that we can get on to world level. I don't think we are behind anybody. It's just that Indians have a mental block towards games other than cricket. But now it's changing.
You are now counted among the world's best badminton players and you have been doing so well, reaching the quarters at the Olympics. Do you think things have changed after India's performance at Beijing Olympics? Have you received the kind of recognition you deserved?
Yes, it has changed massively. People now follow not only badminton but also other sports including boxing. All other sports in India are coming up very well. The Olympic Games and the Commonwealth Games are really important events and I have played well in them. Indoor sports like chess has gained momentum because of Viswanathan Anand and all other tournaments in various sports are important. But the media covers only the main ones like the Olympics and the Commonwealth, which is wrong in a way. Sportspersons put in a lot of hard work and it should be paid. I got a good break in the Olympics this year and now the media covers all the tournaments I play.
I really don't know if I have received the kind of recognition I deserved, can't really comment on that. I would say it is 50-50 and I should have got a little more than what I got. I wasn't exactly underestimated but being in the top ten is not a small thing. Cricket takes away all the limelight and it is not hidden. We play so many tournaments in the year and nobody knows about it.
Do you miss not getting a medal at Beijing Olympics?
Yes, I miss it terribly. Sometimes I feel like crying because it was such a big day for me. Maybe there is something else in store for me and it was not my time. I was just a match away from winning a medal and losing after coming so close was unbelievable. I am still not over it and don't think much about it. Whenever I think about it I feel like crying.
People often confuse your name with Sania Mirza
I don't like it and I think people should no longer confuse me with her. She plays tennis and I play badminton, though we hail from the same city - Hyderabad. I think now the confusion should not be there. But it feels great to see changing mindsets toward badminton.
Who is your inspiration?
I really like Roger Federer (tennis). And from India, Gopi Sir (former badminton player Pulela Gopichand) is my inspiration.
Are there more Sainas in the making?
I think it will take some time for that to happen. I won't say it's really difficult to be like me but being in the top ten takes quite a lot of efforts. Anyone can be a player but to reach this level of the game, you have to work hard like crazy.
How does it feel to have a huge fan following?
It feels great to see small kids coming to me and saying they want to be like me. And also when people express their liking for the game and wish it to become more popular. I won't say it can be compared to cricket but definitely it can reach to a certain level. Now, a number of people want to take up badminton as their profession and there are academies mushrooming to train budding players.
Has your growing popularity fetched you any endorsement offers? Would you find yourself being distracted by glamour?
I have no idea about endorsements as my managing agency takes care of that. I don't think it will affect my game. My parents and coach have always been by my side and I'm sure they will help me tackle it in a right way.
The best moment of your life?
It was reaching the quarterfinals of the Beijing Olympics, but now it is undoubtedly entering the elite world top ten rankings.
Your message to the youngsters?
All I would say is keep going, keep working hard even if you are not doing well. Don't get disheartened when you are losing because that is the time God tests you. It's all about how you handle your success at the end of the day and not getting distracted by media hype or anything for that matter.