People | Holding Court

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Holding Court
Text by Supriya Nair and Photograph Courtesy by Ramakanth Advertising
Published: Volume 17, Issue 8, August, 2009

Supriya Nair profiles the remarkable Saina Nehwal who gears up for a shot at the World Badminton Championships in Hyderabad this month

You know the shy, toothy grin, the coltish awkwardness of extreme youth that shows through her athlete's grace from time to time. She may face the media with roughly the same sense of suspicion as she might an unknown opponent, but she has never been known to ignore them. Instead, like her sporting heroes, “Sachin Tendulkar and Roger Federer. And, of course, Prakashji (Padukone) and Gopiji (Pullela Gopichand),” she seems to prefer quiet poise over over jock-queen exuberance.

You know she has a soft voice and that her wavy hair is held back, touchingly, with three barrettes – orange, white and green, in the colours of the Indian flag. You think of her living in her athlete-prodigy bubble as she moves through the world from tour to tour with “my team, my coach, and my cellphone.” You think of her support system at home, with a small, close-knit family who can no longer always accompany her on her journey through the sporting season, scaling up to single digits in the world rankings. Ask her about it and she mentions “Papa,” to whom she speaks “three or four times a day” when she’s travelling, and you realise that it’s easy to think of her as a girl, a child, or both.

But when you watch Saina Nehwal on court, you don’t do it in the hopes of her evoking any sort of dainty femininity. She doesn’t. Her game hinges on power. Her focus is so intense that every line of her physique seems to be moulded of granite and grit. Ask her about her landmark win at the Indonesian Open, and her only response is, “There’s still more to come.” The sweat pours off her muscles as her focus narrows down to the court and her opponent, and the shuttlecock knocking back and forth. She’s more street-dancer than ballerina, all rhythm and bass and very little chamber music. It’s unsurprising. Even if badminton is, at a certain level of its aesthetic, all about feather-light touches, the slim racquets and delicate shuttlecocks, a flick of the wrist and a trip of the ankle; for India’s rising badminton star, it’s hardly just a game. It’s life; and Saina Nehwal impresses you as someone who takes life seriously.

She has to, of course. This is a sport which, in spite of its ubiquity on the concrete parking lots of housing societies and the dusty playgrounds of suburban English-medium schools, seems to fade from the Indian consciousness once its practitioners enter high school. A sport that faces all the problems, and then some, which the grinding bureaucracy and disinterest of the country’s unimaginative support systems can throw at it. A sport where, as late as last year, Prakash Padukone went on record confessing that national-level players practiced with shuttlecocks made of cardboard, because they couldn’t afford real ones. Think of badminton and the country thinks of plasticky indoor stadia, of the echo of a lone tock-tock in a greying silence, and grim-faced, compact Chinese teenagers bent on total annihilation on the other side of the net. If we think of it at all, or worse; if we think of it as that moment in Bollywood, of Leena Chandavarkar lifting a delicate arm as she croons along to Dhal gaya din, ho gayi shyam.

But back up a minute. The sun isn’t quite setting here. Not now. Not when Saina Nehwal, marked out for greatness by Padukone himself and coached by another legend, Pullela Gopichand, is being talked about. Not when someone whose parents are former state-level badminton players and who has played the sport almost since the minute she could hold a racquet, walks on court. Not when you see the determination and the resourcefulness of her play. “I wake up at 6.30 a.m.,” she says, in her soft, matter-of-fact tones, describing a typical day in the life of a badminton champion. “I’m at the academy by 8 a.m. I break for lunch, but I’m at work until about 7 p.m.” And then? “Home, dinner, a little music, and sleep. Until the next day.”

If that sounds positively relaxed to those of us familiar with the horror stories of sporting childhoods chewed up and swallowed in the inferno of familial pushiness and team expectations, then we have Nehwal’s parents, themselves both former Haryana champions in the sport, to thank. But it’s also to forget that if Nehwal has earned herself a champion’s routine, it’s because she has been playing badminton all day, every day, since she was six years old, and in a sense, it’s her whole life. She doesn’t think about life after badminton, only that she wants to do better and better. Ask her what she does to relax, and all she will tell you is that she doesn’t.

If she were a different person, Saina Nehwal would make you feel angry, that for all this talent and all this hard work, all the history of a legendary sport behind her and a glowing future ahead, the laurels and luxuriant sponsorships seem thin on the ground, even as the country celebrates the glitz and glamour of young men who make the Test team, and celebrate by instantly acquiring beer bellies and attitudes.

Instead, you watch her, a calm, steadying presence off court, a bulwark in a storm when she’s on, more often than not. You watch the legends of the past peer at her over the sidelines as she gears up for another push up the rankings. You watch the India-flag barrettes glint in the sunshine. And you feel glad, anxious, and not a little proud.

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