When Saina Nehwal steps out to take a walk in Jakarta, she gets mobbed. They try to talk to her, they want her autograph and they want to take pictures with her. Indeed, she is a bonafide celebrity in Indonesia.
Their national sport is badminton and the 22-year-old Indian, by reaching the final of the Indonesian Open four consecutive times and winning thrice, has earned the right to call it her home. Much in the same way as Boris Becker regarded Wimbledon to be his home.
The latest of her triumphs came on Sunday when she came back from the dead, saved two match points, and went on to beat Li Xuerui of China whose unbeaten run stretched to January 2012 and was gunning for her fifth successive Super Series title. Honestly, she played great but she couldn't have done it without the crowd cheering her every move.
The atmosphere at the Istora Gelora Bung Karno stadium, where the final was played, would have put any of the Indian venues where Saina played in the last few years to shame as the capacity crowd rooted for the Indian and even the world number five acknowledged the vociferous support that saw her through during the difficult phase of the match.
“It was a really, really tough and I love the crowd here. It’s really nice here. Whenever I enter the court, I feel like a champion here,” Saina said after the gruelling encounter.
Indonesia has almost become a second home venue for Saina in the last four years and unlike in India where she is under pressure to perform, she can go out and play freely. But in her own words, “I can’t move out freely as everyone knows who I am.”
There is a lot of truth in what Saina says. She came to Jakarta on a high this year and in 2010, but last year she was going through a difficult period with her performance nowhere near her best and a sour relationship with coach and mentor Pullela Gopi Chand weighing her down.
However, the Commonwealth Games champion managed to put all those thoughts behind and rode a wave of crowd support to reach the final. She eventually lost to world champion Yihan Wang but the support she got throughout showed how much she is valued in a country where badminton stars are revered like the cricketers in India.
Ever since the retirement of Susi Susanti, Indonesia has failed to produce a women’s badminton star who could challenge the might of China – their arch rival for over two decades now -- on the international stage.
But their hatred towards the Chinese is so high that they are willing to back any individual who has the potential to upstage the badminton powerhouse and in Saina have found someone who is not scared of the dragon nation’s world conquering stars.
That explains why the entire stadium erupted in joy when Saina saved two match points to take Sunday’s final into the decider. And when Xuerui ultimately hit the shuttle in the net to hand the title to Saina, they raised the roof with their celebrations.
Today, Saina is a more recognised face in Indonesia and has bigger fan following in the island nation than even in India. Winning a title is just her way of thanking them for all the support.