When she was all of eight, her mother knew she would be a champion. By the time she was twelve, Saina was already on the courts and winning every game she played. If her mother – a professional badminton player herself – pushed her to a point of despair, it was only because she knew what her daughter was capable of. World number one today, Saina doesn’t bat an eyelid when she tells you that it is not for enjoyment, but for the sake of winning that she plays every game – the reason why she is called the ‘tigress’ from India.
GJ: You are just 22 and you have redefined history, how do you feel?
SN: You know age doesn’t matter; it’s all about winning and winning against anyone.
GJ: From your biographies, I learnt that you were really focused right from the beginning…
SN: Yes I was very focused, you cannot focus just like that, there’ll be someone behind you who’ll make you focus. My mom was like that. She was too much into the sport, she wouldn’t let me focus on anything else but the game. I was studying or playing or studying or playing. So it was only two things which I was doing. When I used to play bad or do badly in these games she used to scold me.
Once I played my under 10 tournament and that was the first year I was playing tournaments, I just came out of the court and expected she would say something, instead she just gave me a slap in front of my colleagues whom I used to play with and they were laughing at me and I said one day you will see. She did that for my betterment and today I am here for her. Positive people will always think that well she wants me to do well negative will that they are discouraging me. So if you want to do something for your parents your country you have to think positively and that’s what I did. I never felt bad about anything, I could understand her feeling you know. Of course I was very young to understand anything but that winning feeling she put inside me so much and later on when I was 15 or 16 then they didn’t even ask second time when I said I don’t want to study anymore. Although they knew that the game was not popular then, there were so many thoughts that must have gone on in their minds like injury, money etc but they didn’t ask me second time. Today I am very happy that everything turned out to be good for me. I was also very lucky to get good sponsors at that time, at the age of 14, I got Bharat Petroleum and I work with them now and at 18 years I got Deccan Chronicle as my sponsors. That was one of the major sponsors, I didn’t have to worry about any money, and not many sponsors were coming in at that time. Now Deccan Chronicle contract is over and Riddhi sports sponsors came along.
In badminton to get such a big deal is not easy, that too in India. Other sports like cricket and tennis were already popular, but badminton was not. Then people knew me and sponsors were coming in.
GJ: What’s sportsmanship to you and how do you execute it?
SN: Sportsmanship for me – you have to be cool on court, of course everyone wants to win but you should not give in to sledging. I am a very relaxed and cool person on court. There was a match during Olympics and my opponent fell down and everyone was like where you happy that she fell down and you got the medal? I mean what is that supposed to mean? When she fell I was not thinking about the medal, I was thinking what happened to her. So it’s very important in every sport mto play properly, to not show any anger that you are afraid of losing to opponents. This is something that I do.
GJ: What’s winning and what’s losing to you?
SN: Winning is everything and losing is painful. To think that I have lost that match which I could have won is painful. It’s not that I lose easily, I beat everybody, I have beaten world’s number 1. So there’s no one left now. If I lose to them it’s very closely and then I feel really very bad and think maybe I was not fit enough for this tournament. If I had prepared a little bit then I would have won the match. I would get those kinds of feelings.
GJ: You said that at the age of 8 your mom knew, what made her so sure?
SN: She was a player before and she had it in her mind and of course she knew how to play and she used to say that I’ll make you a champion; I’ll make you an Olympic champion. She used to watch badminton, she used to watch tennis, she was too much into sports, she wanted to do something, and she directly put the title of Olympics in front of me. But she said nothing is impossible. With the kind of hard work that I did, I started performing at the age of 12 of 13 because I got the exposure.
GJ: Coach Gopichand was in the news recently because of the harassment case that was filed recently, lot of players supported the case but you spoke for the coach.
SN: A lot of people supported him and you must understand that a coach who is so hard working, who helps the girl players so much, he doesn’t have time for himself, he is behind us all the time. Whatever came out in the paper is obviously a little disheartening for him but sometimes these things happen.
GJ: When do you see number 1 happening?
SN: I know it’s not easy, I’m working on it, I have to win many tournaments to be at the top. I feel I have the capability of doing it and I cannot say when I can do it but it will happen.
GJ: Of all the achievements, that you won which one is the closest to you?
SN: Nothing bigger than the Olympic medal, everyone dreams of an Olympic medal. My mother once said that Saina for me you’ll be in the Olympics, I know you will be. Only at the age of 18 I played my first Olympics, at 2008. I lost and then I waited 4 years and now I have the medal. At 18 I was the youngest player to play from India.
GJ: When did you feel you had made it?
SN: I thought about it when I was 15 when I beat Aparna, I beat quite a few international players. I beat Aparna who was world no 27, I was nothing then, I was just a national level player. Then I beat her so easily and then I knew it that I can win against strong players.
GJ: Who is that one opponent you love playing against?
SN: I don’t enjoy, I just want to win. People tell me on court you are a tigress off the court you are silent.
GJ: Is there any ritual which you do before going into the game?
SN: I pray and sometimes I try to meditate or I visualize the game and then I go ahead playing it. I am quite strong mentally because I don’t give up any match easily, I try to give my best and if I lose then it was not a very easy match.
GJ: How long do you train?
SN: I normally train for 9 hours. Before it was 8 to 9 hours now it has gone up to 11 hours.
GJ: Would you say you are very hard on yourself?
SN: You have to be hard you want to be good. Especially in India nobody did so well in badminton. It’s a very difficult sport, if you see on TV the game has become so fast that you don’t have time to even think in between. The rallies are happening very fast, you are putting too much strain on your legs and I have not seen a girl from India so physically strong. There was no one reaching world number 2 or 3 before, so I changed it and showed that we can beat Chinese and all the players.
GJ: Are there any other people who have influenced you other than your coach and parents?
SN: When I started playing I had 3 coaches SM Arif, Gohota Reddy and Nani Prasad Sir who is no more, these 3-4 coaches really helped me achieve what I have achieved today. I want to thank my academy members, they made me train so much.
GJ: Now that you are participating in the badminton leagues, what prompted you to get into it?
SN: I think it’s something different as to what is happening in badminton, something like IPL will happen in badminton and I was so thrilled that something like cricket will happen in badminton. I think it will be a huge success because of the big money coming in and the players who don’t get to play at the national and the international level, they will also get a chance to play. With that money they can also go abroad and play in tournament and this will only popularize the game more. And people will also sit and watch the game.
GJ: Have you ever thought of a second career other than badminton and how would you like to empower the country’s status in badminton?
SN: I got an offer from Haryana for the academy there, from Bangalore also I got an offer from people who gave me flats over there Commune India and they wanted to start an academy and told me to be a part of it. I’ll do something for the game for sure.
GJ: Here, sports fraternity is one not sponsored by the government like it is done in China. What are the structural changes you’d recommend the government to begin with?
SN: The area to look into here is the infrastructure of the game. Getting more coaches from abroad is crucial. Chinese coaches will be the best but it is difficult to get them but some coaches who can give full time to the game who can be there from 4:30 in the morning till night and training all the kids and in each and every part of the country. Why not have 300 to 400 players or 1000 players of the same level, and then it will be same like China. I am not asking to change it suddenly but why not begin it now and then in the future we can see the change.
GJ: Are you considering marriage in the near future?
SN: Don’t you love watching me play, that’s more than getting married and sitting at home. For me, game is first and for that I would do anything. I’ll play till I can give my best and then think about marriage. When I feel that I am not doing well and that I should stop playing then I will consider marriage. Till the time I can play and I know I can go ahead in the game I will continue playing.
GJ: The qualities in your dream guy?
SN: Friendly and of course, he should look good because nobody wants a bad looking guy. He should understand what I do in which field I am. He must know that I am not going to stay at home for long time. It’s not easy to start relationship at this point of time
GJ: What are the things that the world doesn’t know about Saina?
SN: I love watching movies, going out for shopping, I love aloo paratha, I love buying gadgets.
GJ: Looking forward what can we expect from Saina in a decade? Besides the academy is there any other way you look at yourself 10 years from today?
SN: I don’t think so far, I really don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow, I think about the next game. It’s a tough thing to think about, why should I think so far ahead.
GJ: What makes you so successful Saina, there are so many athletes but there is only one Saina?
SN: I am much focused and it’s the competition which fires me a lot. I think about what the Chinese players are doing at this point of time, I should do a little better than her and that’s the only thing which goes into my head. You might find it silly but I am thinking about my game all the time. Even right now as I am talking to you I am thinking about will I be able to maintain my successful player status and you always want to go on working harder as people would want to know that when you are going to be world number 1.
GJ: How is Saina Nehwal different from Sania Mirza?
SN: Well people know about that, I don’t have to say that. It’s only the game, which makes all the difference. I have 6 to 7 super series, equal to Wimbledon or any grand slam there.
GJ: Are you happy with the way the generations are going about their ways today, as you are around the youth always? What is your thought on the youth of India today?
SN: They have to be more and more disciplined in life. We need more people to come in sport, whichever sports they like, train yourself and then give your whole life to sport. Girls should come up more. I think India is the most talented country, we have lot of talents but we don’t have the knowledge of the game.