Saina Nehwal has every reason to look back at the year 2012 as “highly satisfying and memorable”. She had won the Indonesian Open Super Series, 2012 London Olympics bronze and then the Denmark Open (the first-ever Indian woman to win this title) to remind her stature as one of the premier shuttlers in the world circuit.
“Definitely it would have been better if I had finished the year with the BWF Super Series title,” says 22-year-old Saina. She was a finalist in the last edition but lost in the semi-final. She was also disappointed that she had to pull out of the Syed Modi Grand Prix Gold meet in Lucknow later on.
But again, she gently reminds that it is not always within the realms of reality to keep winning every title. “I just didn't want to risk my injured knee any further ahead of a busy international calendar and that's why I pulled out of Lucknow event. Well, there are always ups and downs in anyone's career. So, overall I am really pleased with the way things have gone by this year,” the World No.3 from Hyderabad says in an exclusive interview.
What is the biggest change she saw herself this year?
“Honestly, the build-up was not the ideal one which I was looking for this year given the string of losses late last year. But, again, it was the BWF Super Series final appearance and the Swiss Open title early this year that brought back the confidence in me that I can win big titles,” recalls the champion.
Did it mean a change in your training and even your game too?
“No major changes as such. Some minor adjustments had to be made. Only the intensity of preparations was taken to a new high, thanks to Gopi sir (former All England champion Pullela Gopi Chand and now chief national coach). Honestly, he came up with the kind of schedule not in just training but also of competitions too which we were actually looking for,” says Saina.
The ace shuttler from Hyderabad does believe that she has been at her best in terms of physical fitness especially till the London Olympics. “Later on, there was some problem with the knee but I could still manage to play a couple of Super Series,” she says.
What does Olympic medal mean to you now?
“The moments of despair when I lost in the 2008 Beijing Olympics quarter-final lingered on for long. I was just determined not to see a repetition of such things this time around. So, I am really pleased with the end-result – a bronze,” remarked Saina.
“Well, there are quite a few who still have a feeling that I was a little bit lucky with the bronze given the fact that my opponent (Xin Wang) pulled out because of a knee injury. But, can anyone dispute the fact that I have to reach that stage to be in with a chance to win the medal. An Olympic medal is not there for easy asking. You have to be there after years of planning and effort. Given this context, I can say with a sense of pride that Olympic medal was the defining moment of my career,” says a visibly contented Saina.
“Yes, definitely, I would have loved to win a gold medal. Well, it is not all over as yet for me. The focus has already shifted to the 2016 Olympics in Rio (Brazil). Though it is too long to talk about for anything can happen in between, it is a fact that we are gunning for gold there,” insists Saina to a query.
Has life changed much after the London Olympics medal?
“Certainly. First, I am more confident now and more relaxed what with the heavy load of an Olympic medal off my shoulder now. Game-wise, I am much sharper with my strokes and better at the net. Definitely need to work on my defence,” says Saina. “Then, there is recognition after the Olympic medal. I am happy that more than personal attention on me, the sport as such gained in stature. I will be happy if we produce a few more champion shuttlers in the near future,” she says.
How is it being an Olympic medalist at home?
“Honestly, my parents (Dr. Harvir Singh and Usha Rani) have always treated me on the same wavelength – whether I won or lost any tournament. The kind of support they gave me is something unbelievable and it is something which every performing young talent should get it,” says the Rajiv Khel Ratna Awardee.
It is always said that you miss so many nicer things in life because of your badminton schedule. Is it the same even now? “Of course, it can’t change for I have set new goals for the next four years. And, Gopi Sir, is not the one who encourages you to relax just for the sake of it. I am already back to the 4.30 to 11.00 am and 2.30 pm to 7.00 pm daily training schedule at Gopi Chand Academy,” she explains.
Do you believe that the setting up of Gopi Academy could not have been timed better in view of your emerging on the badminton circuit as the biggest medal hope?
“I can only say I am lucky that everything fell in place. Obviously, Gopi Academy is the best you can look for. What is most impressive about it is the professional system that is in place. It is all about team work and don’t forget the role of the support staff which complements so well in Gopi’s absence sometimes. Each one of them played a bit in my dream come true in London Olympics,” she pointed out.
“It is not just training with Gopi Sir. The way he plans the players’ schedule is equally important. Being a champion himself during his heydays, he knows it better than anyone else how to tune a player to a tournament. So much of indepth analysis is done by him right through,” argues Saina.
Is there a sense of satisfaction that you emerged as the biggest threat to Chinese players in recent times?
“Well, I will not project myself like that. But the fact that they do lot of study every time I compete gives me that extra feeling of achievement. But, again, never underestimate them. It is never easy to beat them consistently for they give little scope for error,” reminds Saina.
This is not surprising given the losses she suffered at the hands of Chinese shuttlers – be in the London Olympics semi-final to world champion Wang Yihan or to reigning Olympics champion Liu Xuerui in the BWF S upper Series semi-final to name the two most important losses.
“I don’t think anyone is unbeatable. Anyone can beat anyone on a given day. It again, I repeat, depends on how well you perform on that given day and execute all the training and strategies in the desired manner,” feels Saina.
On the multi-crore deal, which is the biggest ever by any non-cricketing sports personality in India, a smiling Saina plays down the whole issue. “These things come your way when you are successful. Definitely, I am happy and must thank Vinod Dhawan of Delhi Badminton Association for making this deal through. See, money is not the only thing that matters. I have bigger goals I set for myself in badminton,” she insists.
You are already talking a lot about setting up Academy. Is it not too early to think about it when you are still aiming for gold in the 2016 Olympics?
“This is because of the sites offered to me in Benguluru and by the Haryana State Government. I am not saying that I will set up one immediately. But, Academy is definitely on my agenda for I want to give back something to the sport which made me what I am. And, again Gopi Sir’s Academy is the inspiration. Look at the sea-change in Indian badminton after he set up one in Gachibowli (Hyderabad). It makes a lot of difference to a player with genuine talent. So, essentially, I just want to ensure that no talent drifts away for want of support in terms of infrastructure,” explains Saina.
So, at the end of it all, any regrets?
“I don’t think there is anything to regret about. God has given me everything a girl of my age would have loved to achieve. Again, a few more wins would have been more sweeter. But now it is time to celebrate what I believe to be very memorable year,” Saina pointed out.
What are the resolutions for the New Year?
“Just keep playing well. More importantly, look for being injury-free year. I enjoy playing badminton and right now I can’t think of life without it. So, let me enjoy the sport as much as I can,” she pointed out. “There is no better joy than standing on the medal podium. That is why I keep playing day in and day out,” signs off the champion shuttler before another grinding session at the Gopi Academy.