As you approach the last leg of the 30-odd-km stretch that connects the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport with Gachibowli, Hyderabad’s northwestern suburb, gleaming glass-and-chrome facades dotting the horizon remind you of what awaits in some distance. After you turn the corner at the toll gate and cruise ahead, Hyderabad’s premier business district is upon you. Old timers will tell you that even a decade and a half ago, this area resembled a jungle. But as the growing city sprawled northwards, Gachibowli and its adjoining areas became one of the most aspirational addresses in the state. The old Mumbai highway that runs through it straddles on either side high-rises housing Indian and global business bellwethers and fallow plots with building foundations spearing out, indicating their towering aspirations.
The story of nouveau Hyderabad’s meteoric rise heralds that of one of its most famous residents. Around the time Gachibowli was still a village, an eight-year-old had just shifted from Hisar in Haryana to Hyderabad’s Rajendranagar. The move from Haryanvi Hindi to Telugu wasn’t that smooth and, as the child got a little lonely, her parents sent her off to play a sport—first karate and then badminton—just so that she would kill some time. Little did they know that the girl would turn out to be a giant-killer on court and, 15 years on, bring the country the game’s top honours. Meet Saina Nehwal, shuttler, SRK fangirl, Olympic medallist, and a rare Indian to reach the World No 1 ranking in an individual sport.
The 25-year-old has finished 2015 with an enviable five titles (one among them a Superseries) and three Superseries finals (with only the Dubai Superseries finals left to be played at the time of writing this). Her speed and guile have singed even the formidable Chinese, who’ve dominated the sport for decades. You could rattle off further statistics, but her 2015 performance can well be captured in her record against past nemesis Yihan Wang—the nearly-six-foot Chinese World No 8 with a steely gaze and an abrasive game—who was handed out three successive defeats by Nehwal this year after she beat her in their previous nine outings.
Yet, as she jogs her memory to the time she woke up at 4 am to attend coaching camps, return home to prepare for school and go back to the camp before coming back home at 9 at night, she can’t think of a day when she planned any of this. “I started playing because I saw my parents play in Hisar. I was never competitive about the game; just that I wanted to do better than others. I didn’t have any role models and the game wasn’t a life-and-death matter to me. My mother, a state champion from Haryana, would give me inputs and luckily, I could always work extra hard and wouldn’t get tired even after a whole day’s training,” says the current World No 2, lounging at her Hyderabad home as she recovers from an injury that forced her to pull out of this year’s Hong Kong Open.
Her words might seem casual, perhaps a tad dispassionate. But her long list of achievements more than make up for her lack of articulation: With a staggering 22 international titles (eight among them prestigious Superseries ones), a silver at the World Championships this year, multiple Asian and Commonwealth Games medals, it’s clear that Nehwal would rather let her racket do the talking.
Her illustrious career has upped Nehwal’s brand value. The shuttler, who has gone up by 10 places to No 39 in the 2015 Forbes India Celebrity 100 List, now endorses 14 brands, a Himalayan figure in a country where corporates mostly queue up for cricketers. Says brand consultant Harish Bijoor, “Saina has a girl-next-door kind of image, of someone who has worked very hard to come up in life. Her high emotive content works well with hardworking brands.”
But the titles or her ascending worth represent merely the last mile. The Saina Nehwal story is one of sweat and sacrifices that’s synonymous with the Indian middle class—her dad gave up promotions to stay put in Hyderabad and her mother currently spends her time at a dormitory in Bengaluru to look after her daughter and collect shuttles littered around the courts during practice—and a fearlessness that often eludes it.
Born to Harvir Singh Nehwal, an agricultural scientist, and Usha Rani, a homemaker-cum-shuttler, Nehwal didn’t have truckloads of talent as a kid. Her footwork wasn’t always the best and her game not the sharpest. In fact, to this day, she doesn’t belong to the Prakash Padukone school of melodious touch play. Neither do her strokes carry the imperiousness of her tennis hero Roger Federer. But Nehwal is more in tune with a game that exudes raw aggression and pace, a reflection of 2001 All-England champion P Gopichand who coached her for nearly a decade.
Despite no apparent special talent, Nehwal stood out among the hordes that turned up for a summer coaching camp in Hyderabad under the late Nani Prasad Rao by sheer hard work and “the way she held a racket”. “In two days, Nani sir told me that Saina would be an exceptional player and we decided to invest in her badminton career,” says Harvir, the doting father.
The road to being the top badminton player in the world, however, began with a loss. A tournament was organised in the final days of the summer camp to choose a player who would be inducted as a trainee into the Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh. Nehwal lost the final match. As luck would have it, the winner went back to her home in Nagpur and Nehwal, the runner-up, was taken in as a day boarder.
Similar fortuitous circumstances played out in Nehwal’s life again in the 2012 London Olympics when her opponent in the bronze medal playoff match, Xin Wang, retired hurt while ahead by a game and a point in the second game. Saina finished on the podium and became the first Indian shuttler to win an Olympic medal. “Maybe the medal was written for me,” Saina had said after the victory. But there’s no writing off the hard work that she put in the decade leading up to it, a quality that has been repeatedly noted by her coaches.
One of her earliest coaches at the Sports Authority of India and Dronacharya awardee SM Arif remembers Saina as a kid with exemplary work ethic, one who would always stay back after the day’s training. Shy and reticent, she would stand in a corner, clearly looking unhappy. “I knew immediately what was wrong. I would ask her if she wanted to continue with the training. And the answer would always be yes. Saina has always pushed herself beyond her limits,” says Arif, who has coached international players like P Gopichand, PVV Lakshmi, Chetan Anand and Jwala Gutta. One of the moments that stand out in Arif’s memory is a tournament in Thane, a suburb in Mumbai, where Nehwal played five finals in a day. “She was playing various age groups and won three. That day, I realised what Saina is made of.”
Add to that her mental strength. Even at the junior level, when she was playing opponents much older to her, there wasn’t an iota of fear in her game. In 2005, months after she lost to nine-time national champion Aparna Popat in the finals of the senior national championships, Nehwal, then 15, bounced back with some deft placements and beat Popat in the Asian Satellite Championships in straight games.
Then Indian national coach U Vimal Kumar, himself a national champion, got a taste of Nehwal’s guts a year later during the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. Aparna Popat, then India No 1 and a former Olympian, was struggling with injury against the dangerous English side in the team challenge. Vimal remembers Saina seated next to him on the sidelines, requesting for a chance to play the next match. He sent her in for the next match against Tracey Hallam, the World No 8 then and the eventual women’s singles gold medallist. And Saina, then 16, came up trumps. “She is one of the most fearless players I have seen. She is not intimidated by the stature of her opponent neither is she scared of losing,” says Vimal, who now coaches Nehwal at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Bengaluru.
Nehwal displays nonchalance while talking about her first international outing. “I wasn’t exactly thinking about winning or losing. I just wanted a chance to play. I went on the court with the josh [energy] of an upcoming player and beat Hallam,” she throws in the words while lifting her frisky pup, Chopsy, a Shih Tzu, from under the table and seating it beside her. “I also beat other higher-ranked players and helped secure the bronze for our team,” she adds as an afterthought, as the bell rings and Chopsy leaps out of the sofa to besiege the door. “A few weeks later, I won the Philippines Open, my first international tournament. The 2006 Commonwealth Games gave me experience and experience gives you confidence.”
She maintained good form in the years after her Philippines Open victory, but an elite Super Series title was still elusive. She came within striking distance of an Olympic medal in the 2008 Beijing edition of the Games, making it to the quarterfinals and losing to Indonesia’s Maria Kristin Yulianti, who was ranked below her. But it was on Yulianti’s home soil next year that she made amends by winning the Indonesia Open Superseries tournament, the first Indian woman shuttler to do so. The victory reinforced whatever self-belief the Beijing near-miss had dented and she celebrated it by having a few extra ice creams (her other forbidden pleasure besides chocolates).
The country has remained a happy hunting ground ever since, with Nehwal managing a podium finish four times in the next six years. She enjoys a Sachin Tendulkar-esque stature in the country with even cabbies offering her free rides and fans mobbing her at public places. “I don’t know what is it about Indonesia—maybe it’s the stadium—that I always play well there. Every stadium has its own drift and the one at Jakarta suits me well,” says Nehwal. “Besides, the venue is huge, like a football stadium, and the atmosphere is electric. I feel charged up playing there.”
It’s poetic that she broke her World Championships jinx in Indonesia, bagging her first medal with a silver this year. Her previous five attempts in the World Championships all ended in the quarterfinals, a hurdle that was twice crossed by her junior colleague PV Sindhu. So intent was she on improving her record that she parted ways with her long-time coach P Gopichand and moved bag and baggage to Bengaluru to train under Vimal Kumar. It wasn’t easy, cutting the umbilical cord with her mentor, leaving behind her friends at the academy, facing spiralling speculation in the media over the split, and choosing a life of an almost monkish regimen of eat-sleep-play-repeat in Bengaluru over her three luxury cars (an Audi and two BMWs) and her posh villa in Hyderabad. But Nehwal has always maintained it was in the best interests of her game. The 2015 World Championship performance would vindicate her choices.
Says TS Sudhir, a broadcast journalist and author of Saina Nehwal: An Inspirational Biography: “When I was talking to Saina around 2013, she said she was feeling a little stagnated, that she was probably not getting it right, and that her rivals had probably figured out her game. She knew she had to reinvent her game because she frequently plays the same set of top 10 players in various tournaments. That’s why she decided to add something to her armoury in terms of strokes, game plan. Probably that’s why she moved over to Vimal Kumar in Bengaluru.”
Dronacharya coach Arif also points out a few changes over the last year or so that have brought in a new edge to her game. For a long time, her opponents were catching her on both sides of the flank with flat pushes from the net. “Vimal has brought about a change in her stance and a fresh strategic approach to help her negotiate pushes at a particular pace,” he says. Nehwal herself enjoys the pace Vimal has brought to her game. “It helps me reach the shuttle fast. Once you do that, your shots obviously get better.”
For Vimal, though, one of his principal tasks has been to mould Nehwal into an independent player, exhorting her to take her own decisions. When she started training with him, Nehwal would bank on Vimal to thrash out the minutest details of her game. “I had to tell her that’s not happening. When you play at that level, you have to make your own decisions.” That’s when Nehwal started getting involved in the routine and analysing her game. “But it also helps that she does not overanalyse. The good thing about her is that she can move on very fast and doesn’t keep talking about losses,” says Vimal.
What others often call indifference—that she doesn’t mope and cry over losses—is a positive, mature-beyond-her-years philosophy that Nehwal has consciously adopted over the past few years. “I know people dislike the fact that I don’t talk about my losses. What’s the point? Earlier, I would cry a lot. But I have stopped that. I know where I faulted. The only way out is to take it out through practice,” she says.
It’s in tune with that philosophy that Nehwal has stopped pressuring herself. She would be going to the Rio Olympics next year with the expectations of a billion Indians behind her, but for her, it’s just another tournament where she has to play well. She has an Olympic medal, so that monkey is off her back, and the rest is no different from every other match where she puts in 100 percent. Twice this year, she has been beaten by Spaniard Carolina Marin in the finals of the All-England and World Championships—perhaps the two most prestigious tournaments in the Badminton World Federation calendar. Does she tend to choke on the big stage? Nehwal returned the question with the elegance of a gazelle, “She is a tricky customer. But I have beaten her in three previous meetings, haven’t I?”
Aparna Popat is far more vocal about Nehwal’s chances in Rio. “She is one of the few top players who’ve got an all-round game. She has the experience behind her. This is her third Olympics. And age is also behind her. If she is fully fit, she has a fantastic chance of winning another medal,” says Popat.
For a girl who picked up the racket for some “casual timepass”, that would be yet another exhilarating milestone.
(This story appears in the 25 December, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)