IT is early on a Monday. Hyderabad, with its leisurely attitude to life, is just about waking up. It takes me merely 25 minutes to drive from Secunderabad to Gachibowli, a distance of 23 km. In peak-hour traffic, I would have had to spend more than twice the time.
But if most of Hyderabad hasn’t bestirred itself at 7.30 am, the world of Indian badminton is already up and about, having caught the sun’s first rays. As I step into the Pullela Gopichand Nimmagadda Foundation Badminton Academy complex, I can hear the national anthem ring through the morning air.
Jana gana mana adhinayaka jaya he, Bharata bhagya vidhaata Punjab Sindhu Gujarata Maratha Dravida Utkala Vanga…
The anthem is sung with fervour at the academy every morning by some of India’s top badminton players as they get down to another day of practice sessions and strenuous workouts.
My eyes search for Saina. She is there, somewhere in the middle, in a black T-shirt and shorts, her multi-coloured hair clips keeping every strand from wandering on to her face.
The national anthem is special for her. When sung from a podium, having just won a medal in an international tournament, Saina says it has the effect of pumping her adrenaline – especially the ‘Jaya he, jaya he’ refrain.
The anthem and a short prayer over, the players jog outside the hall to soak in the morning sunlight. Another day, another morning, another session. On an average, Saina spends 10 hours at the academy every day. As Saina sees me, she smiles and waves. Beads of perspiration are already visible on her face. I wonder whether greatness is directly proportional to the sweat soaked up by each of those Yonex T-shirts.
“Anyone who aspires to be another Saina Nehwal has to be ready to make badminton her life,” explains Gopi. Reuters “It is a tough life, make no mistake about it,” says Pullela Gopichand.
Sometimes, months go by without Gopi bringing a single new student into his academy. Of course there are the odd one or two who come with “very strong recommendations’’ and he cannot turn them down.
But Gopi personally dissuades most parents from choosing badminton as a career option for their children.
“If you ask me if is there a better life than this, I would say no. I say you have to be blessed to play this game. But I also say that you have got to be prepared to make many sacrifices. Anyone who aspires to be another Saina Nehwal has to be ready to make badminton her life,” explains Gopi.
The academy, recognised as an academy of excellence by the World Badminton Federation, has 150 students (between nine and 25 years of age ). The coaches tell me such is the aspiration to emulate Saina that even if 50 badminton academies were to come up in Hyderabad today, they would be full.
Gopi leads by example. He may have retired as a player on the circuit, but he is as fit as the fittest among his wards. He arrives at the academy at four every morning, a good couple of hours ahead of his first batch of students.
“The thought that wakes me up every day is that there are important things to do, that time is precious. Also that there are lots of players to push. That thought wakes me up in a hurry at three every morning.’’
His wife and former national champion (in 1994 and 1995) P V V Lakshmi (now Lakshmi Gopichand) describes Gopi as a lion on court. “Off the court he is a friend to all these players, but on court they are very scared of him. If anyone is sluggish or fooling around Gopi will not spare him or her.”
Assistant coaches, who individually are in charge of batches of players, swarm around the players, recording what each one of them is up to. As I observe the body language of the players, I wonder if every day for them is a Monday like this one. Will there be the same dedication, the same nerves of steel on a Friday? Are there days when muscles turn sluggish and the body just takes a break? On this morning it doesn’t seem so.
The cover of TS Sudhir’s book. The academy is spick and span, neat to a fault. Gopi learnt the importance of this in Germany. The academy has to be a shining example of the commitment and discipline expected of the players. It also has to be a place where they love to come – not once but twice a day. The picture is complete with Gopi moving around with the seriousness of a stern school principal monitoring every young student, ensuring that no one is out of step.
As the warm-up ends and the clock ticks, the players rummage through their respective kits. Some take out bottles of water for a quick sip, others change their T-shirts and head for the courts with racquets and boxes of shuttlecocks.
Each sweaty T-shirt is like an atom in the molecules that will construct the Olympic dream. And for sure, the day Saina or any of the players win an Olympic medal, the Tshirts will be worth their weight in gold.
It was just like that in 1980 after Prakash Padukone won the All-England. Player-turned-journalist Shirish Nadkarni requested Padukone to give him any garment that he was wearing. In his book, Courting Success, Nadkarni describes how he excitedly asked Padukone for his wristband, napkin, one sock – anything by which to remember the victory. And the newly crowned champion peeled off his shirt and gave it to Nadkarni. The memento travelled with Nadkarni all the way to Bombay in a plastic bag.
The only sound you can hear on the eight courts at the academy is the friction of the sneakers against the flooring and the Yonex court mats. There is little non-badminton conversation that takes place among the players. I watch India’s doubles team of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa doing their sets of shadowing before getting into a sparring session with a male doubles pair.
I position myself close to the court that Saina is practising on. She is playing against two boys. As a rule, she does not play with the girls. This is the only way she can nullify the disadvantage of not training in a system like China’s, where at any given time there are at least seven to eight girls among the top 10 players of the world with little to separate them. But in India there aren’t enough girls playing at Saina’s level. Her sparring partners have to be boys.
Saina is not a touch player in the Prakash Padukone mould. Her game is more close to Gopi’s: aggressive, assertive, packed with raw power. Getty Images Saina is not a touch player in the Prakash Padukone mould. Her game is more close to Gopi’s: aggressive, assertive, packed with raw power. She tells you that is the way the Chinese play. If you are even one fraction of a millisecond late, you will get caught out on court. Gopi wouldn’t want to lessen her aggression and says it is her ability to put the shuttlecock in the court that makes her a winner.
Here today, just like any other day, two boys are sparring with Saina. While one of them tests Saina’s ability to stretch and lunge at the net with delicate drop shots, the other aims it high to test Saina’s smashes. Gopi keeps whispering instructions to the boys while observing Saina’s reaction time and style. All the while, Saina’s eyes are focussed only on the shuttlecock. It is her ally one moment and a foe another.
“She doesn’t win against the boys always. Even when I play against her, she finds it very tough to beat me,” reveals Gopi. To be able to slay the Chinese dragon, Saina fights Gopi and company every single day.
“Mentally I am very strong,’’ says Saina. “I never think that I am up against a formidable Chinese or a Korean. I keep reminding myself that when I was 13 years old, I defeated seniors who were 23 and 24.’’
Champions confess that, more often than not, it is this tremendous self-belief that helps them win. They tell themselves that they can win. But it is also a self-belief that comes out of measuring up to daily challenges. On the adjoining court, Jwala and Ashwini also play against boys so that they are better prepared for the superfast competition in doubles badminton. I ask Jwala if training against boys is good enough.
“Yes,” she replies. “In China, you will have a world champion playing against the world number two or three. That makes the standard of training that much higher. I would say 30 to 40 percent higher in terms of quality. Training with boys at least reduces that gap to an extent.”
I, however, remain sceptical. I remember sports writer Mahesh Sethuraman, too, had his doubts about Saina’s methods of preparing for the Chinese. He wrote: “If only it’s as simple as she made it sound. Imagine Sunny preparing to play against Holding by asking Madan Lal to bowl from 16 yards – probably worse than that.”
But both Saina and Gopi believe practice sessions with boys are actually helpful in taking on the fitter and quicker Chinese. Saina says, “The Chinese are a powerhouse, but not impossible to beat. In fact, not many Chinese are winning now. They are also getting tense in crucial situations and cracking up.’’ Gopi seconds that. “Saina has beaten quite a few top Chinese players convincingly. They have lost to the Thai girls too. So in that sense their confidence is a bit punctured.”
The flipside, however, is that the Chinese threat can never be taken lightly because they have many top-level players. China’s bench strength is unmatched. After playing a game with Saina, senior sports journalist Rohit Brijnath wrote in July 2009: “Badminton is hell on the lungs, thighs, shoulders, all lithe, lunging lunacy. Nehwal likes to practise. It’s some sweaty badge she wears, saying that as a kid ‘coaches liked my hard work’. It is why her coach P Gopichand, an old pal of toughness, uses that word for Nehwal. When it’s time for practice, he notes, she’s often the first on the team bus.”
That’s what perhaps separates Saina from lesser players. Gopi is candid enough to say she is the kind of player who needs coaching. “Her strokes are not natural. They are all learnt. Over the past 12 years that she has been playing badminton, it has been a process of correcting and polishing. But then the amazing part is if you teach her a particular gambit, she will practise hard and use the stroke at the most critical juncture like a 20-all situation. She has that kind of temperament.”
Saina is also obedient. She does as told. Sample what happened on Chinese New Year’s Day in 2005. It is a date Saina won’t forget. She went from being a vegetarian to being a non-vegetarian in the course of a meal in China only because Gopi told her to.
“We were in Hangzhou and it was the Chinese New Year’s Day and no vegetarian fare was available. I took her to a restaurant and told her to eat fish and crab. Till then she had been a vegetarian all her life. I said she had to eat it. And to my surprise, she ate. No questions asked. She couldn’t even open her mouth, but she ate.”
Later she was to confess she ate only because her guru told her to. Saina still does not particularly like non-vegetarian food. She stays away from fish and mutton and only eats chicken. Given a choice, she still would fill her plate with rajma, dal and roti.
During her growing-up years, Saina’s favourite meal used to consist of aloo parantha embellished with green chillies and curd with grapes and apple pieces in it. Now, more conscious of her weight, Saina does not eat more than half a parantha.
When she became part of Gopi’s class, if she was asked to do 10 rounds of running, 10 sets of shadowing (imagining another player’s shots and playing accordingly), she would do it even if Gopi moved away from the court after giving instructions. Taking a shortcut if the coach isn’t watching is not in Saina’s nature.
And when she has taken a shortcut, it has caused more amusement than annoyance. For instance, when Saina lost in the quarters in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she was disappointed and her spirits were drooping on the way back home. Gopi tried to get her into a better frame of mind but it didn’t quite work. Finally, he told her in jest to report for practice at 6 am the following day.
“Sir, can we please start at seven instead of six,” came Saina’s request. If he was a referee, Gopi would have probably said, “Point, game and match to Saina!” Persistence is needed because there are many playing years ahead. Saina turned 22 in March 2012. Most reckon she is a serious medal prospect at the London Olympics. She also has a realistic chance of taking part in the Olympics in 2016 – so if she doesn’t succeed in London she has four more years. In addition, she has ahead of her four All-Englands and four World Championships and at least half a dozen Super Series championships every single year.
Team Saina believes her hard work will pay off. It is just a matter of time before she gets the recognition she deserves. Time and destiny have their own way of putting sportspersons on the podium, but the key is to keep sharpening their skills. Saina needs to prepare every day for that moment of reckoning when she will be able to drop that shuttlecock just a millimetre inside the line nine out of 10 times. The kind of drop that will enthrall spectators and mark the difference between the champion and the runner-up.
By the time Saina came in touch with Gopi in 2004, she was already identified as a precocious talent in Indian badminton. She was recognised as someone with the killer instinct, the right temperament and, above all, the urge to win. She had shown the ability to beat players much older than her, which was the sign of a champion in the making.
But her game had limited range. She was built in only one mould – aggression. From 2004, Gopi worked on honing her talent. It was as though he was chiselling away at a diamond. The diamond is an interesting metaphor. The brilliance of a diamond depends on how it is cut.
Gopi is frank enough to admit that Saina is not a natural player. “She is not even a great lover of the game.” But ask Saina what it is that she loves the most about playing badminton and her reply will surprise you: “I like to win.”
In fact, during Saina’s early years, other players, who were her seniors, used to complain that she showed no respect on or off court. She was seen as being brash with – the “maar doongi (I will finish you)’’ attitude. When not playing, she seemed to be indifferent to her seniors, which got interpreted as arrogance. Perhaps it has something to do with her being an introvert. Aloofness coupled with aggression on court didn’t make her popular with players at the receiving end.
Former national champion Aparna Popat asks if that isn’t the way most youngsters, in sports or otherwise, are. “I remember when Prakash Padukone would walk past us or enter the room, we would automatically stand up. Today’s juniors are not like that. But in Saina’s case, I would say the attitude has worked well and since it has worked for her, I would say she should keep that attitude.”
The seniors who have seen Saina grow as a player point to her self-belief and her refusal to accept defeat as two virtues that have contributed immensely to her success. It is almost as if you should necessarily get very, very upset if you lose a game you should have won or if you caved in without putting up a fight against a stronger opponent. In Saina’s case, the urge to ‘take revenge’ has always been part of her personality. In fact, when younger, ‘taking revenge’ also meant trying to defeat the same opponent with the same score.
“I would say it is a great personality for a sportsperson. She is also very stubborn, which is again a positive quality. It is this lack of fear and respect that has enabled her to beat the top Chinese players just as she beat older and more experienced players when she was playing the sub-juniors and the juniors,” explains Gopi.
Editor’s note: The excerpt has been taken from ‘Saina Nehwal : An Inspirational Biography’ by T S Sudhir and has been reproduced with due permission.