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Tracking a champion bird

Saina Nehwal and Sania Mirza live in the same city. But badminton and tennis are worlds apart, Saina tells Stan Rayan

Photo: Vipin Chandran

Fast track Badminton is all about speed these days, says Saina Nehwal, who was recently in the city

As she made the long walk around the badminton courts after her training session, there was none watching her. No autograph hunters pestered her. Even the lights in Kochi’s huge Rajiv Gandhi indoor stadium were switched off.

Just a year ago, her Philippines Open triumph made Saina Nehwal the first Indian woman to win a four star tournament. She had beaten some of the world’s top-ranked players in Manila. A little later, she won the silver at the World Junior Championship in Korea. Despite these successes, the 17-year-old can still quietly laze about the country’s crowded malls unnoticed.

No media darling

The other day, when this writer spoke to her at the national camp in Kochi, she had the same world ranking (No.30) as tennis star Sania Mirza. But while Sania’s every move has been well documented, Saina is yet to become a media darling.

“I didn’t get much attention even when my world ranking rose to 21 in April,” said the national women’s champion who is still a junior. “I guess our tournaments don’t look as attractive as the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) tour events.

“We get attention only when we win major tournaments, nobody bothers when the reach the quarterfinals or semifinals. I really feel this has to change.”

Saina lives in the same city as Sania and that could be one reason why the lack of attention hurts more.

She is strong in her resolve to win an Olympic gold. “That’s my main aim and it hasn’t diminished in any way. I don’t know which year but I’ll be an Olympic champion some day. And probably after that, things will change in the media,” says the youngster who is now playing the World Championship in Kuala Lumpur.

The circuit has been rather hard for Saina this year. The Philippines Open defending champion was knocked out in the first round by a Chinese in Manila in July. A few days before that Saina failed to cross the first hurdle in the Thailand Open.

“I had an ankle problem in Thailand,” she explained. “And I’ve improved a lot now.”

Badminton has changed a lot over the last couple of years, said the Haryana-born girl wonder who lives in Hyderabad. “Speed, speed, even more speed. It’s all about speed these days.”

To improve her speed and fitness, she is being trained by South African trainer Heath Mathew, who worked wonders with Sania Mirza’s mobility recently. The arrangement was made by the Mittal Champions Trust, set up by steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal two years ago to help out talented sportspersons, which looks after Saina’s career.

“But he has just worked with me for three days, basically to assess my fitness. As we work together more, am sure it will help my mobility and fitness in a big way.”

Mittal Trust

The deal with the Mittal Trust opens a lot of options for Saina, including training abroad and foreign coaches. “It takes a lot of load off your back, it’s very helpful. Now, I’m comfortable, I can focus on my badminton more,” said Saina.

“But I’m happy working with Indian coaches. I don’t think foreign training has helped our players in a big way.”

Bangalore and Hyderabad have frequently hosted national camps, so how was Kochi?

“It was good, the food and the place. I went around, saw a few places. But the hartals were a problem, I was forced to stay indoors. I was getting bored.”

Saina took to badminton early. Her parents Harvir Singh and Usha Rani were State champions in Haryana and it didn’t take long for the little girl to start chasing and whacking the feather ‘bird’. She moved to Hyderabad nine years ago and was moulded into a little champion by Mohammed Arif, who coached former All-England champion Gopi Chand a few years ago. Gopi, who is also the current national coach, now trains Saina.

The young girl relies on ruthless power to subdue opponents. With a strong will and with age on her side, she is ready to write many new chapters in Indian badminton.

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