In 1998, a little girl participated in a summer camp at the Fateh Maidan indoor stadium, Hyderabad. That proved to be the turning point of her life — for the sport claimed her as its own.
At school, Saina Nehwal loved to write in small letters. Little did she realise then that one day big words would be written of her as the giant in women's world badminton. At the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan School (NIRD Rajendranagar), Hyderabad she was always ranked among the top 10 in academics. She was also the ‘best athlete' for seven consecutive years. Not surprisingly then, the distinction gave her the ‘privilege' to often take naps in the back benches of the classroom!
Early in life her inclination was to be an engineer or pursue medicine. But, slowly her immense sporting talent saw academics take the backseat. As time passed this much became clear: her loss to the academic world was badminton's greatest gain.
In 1998, when the eight-year-old Saina walked into the badminton court for the first time at the Fateh Maidan indoor stadium in Hyderabad, everyone took her to be just one of those little girls making a guest appearance in a summer camp. But, once SAAP coach Nani Prasad was impressed with the way Saina gripped the racquet and when she earned the attention of Dronacharya S. M. Arif, who believed that she had the spark to become a very good player, the rest is now history.
For four years, Arif moulded the raw talent of Saina and after his retirement in 2004, it was former All England champion Pullela Gopi Chand who took up the responsibility when she was ranked 198 in the World. By all means Gopi gave a new dimension to the career of the gifted youngster. It was under his tutelage that Saina started winning at the highest level – the 2006 Philippines and the Asian Satellite championships _ even before she became the senior National champion.
Unlike many in her age group, this BPCL officer stood out from the rest of the crowd for her ability to take up heavy workload and rarely deviate from the prescribed training programme. “She is a delight for any coach,” insists Gopi.
Interestingly, she loves to spend her leisure time either watching her favourite Shah Rukh Khan movies or mostly indoors with her family and friends.
When Saina clinched her maiden Super Series title in Chinese Taipei immediately after her Beijing Olympics quarter-final appearance, she finally announced her arrival on the big stage with a bang.
In fact, badminton was in Saina's genes as her mother Usha Rani was a former Haryana State champion and her scientist-father Dr. Harvir Singh, a former University champion. But to her credit, the champion youngster's commitment and dedication to keep improving with each passing season formed the key to her current stature – World No. 2.
Promise and potential
Significantly, 20-year-old Saina's unbridled zeal to keep improving never slackened. She was a classic example of how one should not just show promise but translate the immense potential into performances. And yet when she looks back what moves her most is noting that one of the blocks in the BVB School, where she studied, had been named after her. “It was a great gesture,” admits the humble champion. Her appeal to the younger generation is, “stay focused on academics even while showing interest in sports”. For Saina, the dreams continue and her next big goal is winning a gold in the World championship in Paris in August.