Those were days of awkward unpleasantness for Saina Nehwal. The march into the All England final was still a few fortnights away, and the No. 1 ranking wasn’t a talking point yet, not quite in striking distance. Like a child who believes her toffee has been rudely snatched from her, Nehwal had erupted one day, wondering aloud why she wasn’t in contention for the Padma Bhushan.
It was part pedantic, part petulant — the way she demanded — not the award — but some clarity on the procedure of selection. Critics frowned at what they saw as open lobbying. But Nehwal is not one to be coy — not when she challenges line-calls playing risky points to aisle corners, nor when she asserts that she’s done enough to deserve a national honour. The merits in her claim are a different matter, but Nehwal would simply ask the question if a doubt simmered.
Even as the controversy bubbled and played out on primetime television for a couple of days, Nehwal stayed steadfast with her training schedule each evening — her badminton cocooned inside the practice courts, none of the chattering din permitted to distract her.
The future World No. 1 who moved to Bangalore seven months ago, could pack in a dozen things into her 24-hour-day, with no two priorities muddling her head or interfering with the game that she was sharpening for the All England at Birmingham. “She is extremely energetic and can handle everything. She didn’t miss training sessions a single day in that time,” says international Aravind Bhat, who while sparring alongside watched with amazement how the girl, a few months shy of 25 then, juggled all of her own expectations.
Excellent Work Ethic
“Apart from the great energy she has to manage her game, she has great values in life and an excellent work ethic. It’s unbelievable how she manages her schedule so efficiently. And she’s 100 percent in training, and equally at ease and committed to endorsements work,” he adds.
If there was one shuttler who had the poise and looked ready to embrace the title of World No. 1, it was going to be Nehwal. Even before the rankings go up on Thursday, a clutch of top Chinese, Spanish Carolina Marin, Korean Sung Ji Hyun and Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying would’ve taken off in the Malaysian Super Series, waiting to pounce on the points available to dislodge the Indian. As such, long-time Chinese No. 1 Xuerui Li would need only a couple of semifinal finishes to edge Nehwal off the perch. “But as Indians we should savour this time because we have a No. 1 after such a long time, and Nehwal should enjoy the feeling. The No. 1 tag might give her a big boost, and she can ride that confidence to hold strong onto the top spot,” Bhat believes.
For former leading women’s singles shuttler Aparna Popat, the ideal mind space for Nehwal to be in, is where she consistently beats players, so that going into the World Championships or Olympics, there’s no demonic nemesis. “It’s enough to be in top 4, as long as she’s beating players regularly and there’s no player whom she hasn’t ever beaten,” she explains. Both Bhat and Popat concur that the biggies — World Championships, All England, Asian Championship and finally Olympics remain the ultimate targets. But with the No. 1 box ticked, Nehwal looks more confident than ever to achieve the big titles.
Mind boggling consistency
What’s stunning about Nehwal’s surge to World No. 1 is the mind-boggling consistency that has taken her to the pinnacle. Match after match, tournament after tournament, season after season, Nehwal has stayed in the hunt, pushing for the top spot. “She’s been in the top 10 for seven years now. She’s unlike any other current player in the world, all of whom have suffered injuries and disappeared for some amount of time — Ratchanok and Marin, both World Champions. Her’s is not the freakish rise to No. 1 after 1-2 good tourneys. She’s hovered around No. 5 for long, and the belief that she’ll get there one day is outstanding,” she says, adding if someone asked her 10 years ago if an Indian could be No. 1 down the years, she’d have said a flat no.
Typical of most shuttlers at the top level is the proclivity for their bodies to break down. “Nehwal’s been playing a lot of badminton. people forget that even 1st, 2nd rounds can be tricky. We only talk about Saina vs China, but she’s putting in the hard work of dealing with other players in early rounds in a physically brutal sport week after week,” Popat explains. Save for one off-year in 2011, Nehwal’s been consistently in quarters and semis of the top-rung Super Series, always making the crucial Friday-Saturdays deep into the draw — something in stark contrast to most other Indian shuttlers.
Time to go pro?
Bhat believes the time’s ripe for Nehwal to go pro — tennis-style, and put in place a travelling entourage. “She has a personalised coach in Vimal Kumar. She needs a permanent travelling physio, masseur, trainer, dietician, besides her family and a full-time manager. She might play the next two Olympics even, and now would be the right time to put the vital cogs in place,” he says.
As one of the highest-earning shuttlers in the world, this would mean opening up the pockets, but Nehwal’s shown enterprise to move quickly in her career-decisions. She still travels economy, is known to be humble and polite to coaches and seniors, and is hardly someone who’ll allow the No. 1 tag to go to her head. However, there’s unanimity on how Nehwal deals with rough times. “Each person has different things that motivate them. Nehwal’s shown the biggest motivation for her is proving everyone wrong. If rubbish gets thrown at her, like in the Padma controversy, she will hit back harder with her performance,” notes the gleeful Popat of India’s brand new World No. 1.