The potential medal winner at the upcoming Olympics, Saina Nehwal allows Rakesh Rao a peek into her world where hard work and confidence reigns supreme

Yet another edition of Olympic Games is round the corner. For the London-bound sportspersons, the time for training and preparations is fast running out but, like in the past, there is optimism in the Indian camp. There is something delightfully different this time around.

In the past, most Indian participants were happy just to be in the Olympic arena. Knowing their ‘fate’, they would check out their competition schedule and return tickets. Of course, time for shopping was not to be ignored.

The present lot is very different. No doubt they are all excited at figuring in the Olympic squad but what separates the majority from their predecessors is the attitude. These inspired sportspersons hate to be counted among the “also-rans”. They are serious medal contenders even when pitted against the best in the business. They take pride in their performances. And should they not perform to expectations, they seriously dislike the idea of having to wait to return home. Going ‘shopping’ is not on their list of priority anymore.

This spirit was illustrated by Saina Nehwal in the last Olympic Games in Beijing. Seconds after she tossed away a 1-3 lead in the deciding game of her quarter finals against Indonesia’s Maria Kristin Yulianti, Saina picked up her kit-bag, walked up to her coach P. Gopi Chand and said, “Sir, let’s catch the first-flight home.” In the past four years, Saina proved that she firmly belongs to the creamy layer of ladies badminton. In London, the World number four is a medal prospect, threatening China’s possible medal-sweep. Like some of Indian shooters, boxers, wrestlers and archers, not to forget the hopes in doubles from the tennis arena, Saina holds out a bright prospect of returning with a medal.

Saina’s head-to-head record against the leading Chinese is not impressive. In fact, Saina is yet to play above her ranking or seeding in the Olympic Games, World Championships, Asian Games or Asian Championships.

But London could offer Saina a path-breaking moment. Currently, she is riding high on confidence. She won the Thailand Open and Indonesian Open titles. In the $650,000 Indonesian Open, the second richest prize-money event in the game, the world’s top-eight players were part of the field and Saina defeated two higher-ranked Chinese girls – Wang Shixian and Asian champion Li Xuerui – on her way to the biggest title of her career.

Again, more than what Saina achieved in terms of results, it is important to focus on how she did it. She saved match-points against the two Chinese, in the quarterfinals and finals, and in between, fought back from deficit to stop a resurgent Korean Ji Hyun Sung. “The victories could not have come at a better time. It has surely taken my confidence higher,” said Saina and quickly added, “At the same time, I feel this was not a good time to beat the Chinese because now they will come a lot harder at me in London.”

Talking of Olympics, Saina is looking forward to a different experience this time. “Four years ago, I was excited about the Beijing Games. It was a great opportunity to meet players from others disciplines. I was in awe of a lot of players. I am not the kind of person who will walk up to a star and start a conversation. I am too shy to do that. But I enjoyed the experience of watching Usain Bolt, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.”

Is there anyone in particular Saina was looking forward to meet at the Olympics? “Yes. My hero is Roger Federer. If he is around, I don’t need any other star. It will be nice to meet him in the Games Village. I am not very particular about meeting anyone else. Wish I get my chance to meet Federer,” says Saina.

But there are some who are keen to meet Saina. Since the last Olympics, Saina has grown in status and some players have already expressed their wish to meet her during the Olympics. Table tennis players Soumyajit Ghosh and Ankita Das, both 19-year-olds from Siliguri, are eagerly awaiting a chance for a close encounter with Saina.

“She is such a fighter on the court. I like the way she carries herself. I am a big fan of Saina,” declares Ankita. And Ghosh is quick to add, “Saina is so good in her sport. She is among the best and I admire the way she handles pressure. When told about her two shy “fans”, Saina assures, “I would surely meet them.”

Well aware of her rise as a celebrity sportsperson since the last Games, Saina says. “Last time, I was considered a rising star. I was looking forward to meeting and seeing some big sports people. This time, it is possible that some players would like to meet me. It feels good.”


Saina takes to the skies in IAF aircraftSeptember 28, 2012