In a country that has little excitement for any sports other than cricket, Saina Nehwal has made Indians look forward for laurels in badminton.
The 29-year-old holds the title of many firsts for India – including that of the first Indian to win an Olympic medal in badminton (in 2012). In 2015, she was ranked world number one in badminton, the only Indian woman to ever have done so. She is also the first female player to win three commonwealth games gold medals in this sport, and the second Indian to be named world number one in 2016, after Prakash Padukone.
As a child, Saina - who is Haryanvi by origin and settled in Hyderabad - had enjoyed swimming, running, and cycling. For some time, she was trained in Karate under coach Indrasena Reddy in Hyderabad and had earned a brown belt.
It was her mother Usha Rani Nehwal – who had played a few State level tournaments - who kindled Saina’s interest in badminton. At the age of eight, a lawn in front of their house in Hyderabad became the first step for Saina to explore and pursue a career as a sportsperson.
Rising to fame, one medal at a time
In 2006, after the Philippines Open, then-16-year-old Saina became the first Indian woman to win a super-series tournament. After she won World Junior Badminton Championships, Chinese Taipei Open Grand Prix Gold, Indian National Badminton Championships, and Commonwealth Youth Games, the Badminton World Federation declared her as the most promising player of the year in 2008.
The following year, she won Indonesia Open series and made it till the quarterfinals of World Championship too. Saina and her coach Pullela Gopichand were awarded the Arjuna and Dronacharya award in August 2009, respectively.
In 2010, she received Padma Shri and Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award. In 2016, she was awarded Padma Bhushan.
Commenting on what keeps her on the winning streak, she has said, “I do not keep a count of how many titles I have bagged. I always try to win the encounter.”
Her autobiography titled Playing to win, my life on and off court was released in November 2012.
In November 2012, Saina received an honorary doctorate from Mangalayatan University. She surprised her fans then, saying that it means more than the bronze medal she won at London Olympics. Apparently, it was her father’s dream that Saina becomes a doctor; but she discontinued formal education after finishing 12th standard.
Saina’s father, Harvir Singh Nehwal -who holds a PhD in agricultural science- has accompanied Saina in most of her tournaments in India and abroad. Reportedly, he often had to take loans to give her the kind of training she received.
Last year, when her father was not provided access to the Commonwealth Games Village in Gold Coast in Australia, the shuttler showed reluctance to play for the country.
“I don't mind fighting for my dad anywhere. People have written that I put my dad first but it's not the case otherwise I wouldn't have won medals for my country,” Saina told media.
Winners never quit
For Saina, what has been consistent is her indomitable spirit, confidence to achieve the best, and unwavering focus on the game. For instance, after losing the 2016 Rio Olympics due and the French Open in 2017, she didn’t break easily but shined through it. She bounced back to claim a gold medal in the women’s singles badminton event at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia.
Currently ranked eighth in Women’s singles, Saina also has a biopic coming up, with Parineeti Chopra playing her role.
Saina has also found time for love in fellow-badminton pro and Arjuna Awardee Parupalli Kashyap. The duo got married last year. Saina says that tying the knot has been a lucky charm that kept her career as a sportsperson going smooth. Just a few weeks after her wedding, Saina won the women’s singles at Indonesia Masters .
Saina Nehwal remains strong even when things get difficult, and thus continues to make her nation proud every time she picks up her racket.