Four years ago at the 2012 London Games, Saina Nehwal became the first Indian badminton player to win an Olympics medal. Ahead of the 2016 Rio Games, she will be aiming to better the bronze she won, when she takes to the court in Rio de Janeiro next month.
In an exclusive interview with Firstpost, Saina talks about her aggression, her training schedule for the Rio Olympics, India's emergence as a badminton power and spending days away from home.
Firstpost: So how did you find Udta Punjab? From your tweets to Shahid Kapur and Alia Bhatt, it seemed you enjoyed the movie.
Saina Nehwal: Yes, I saw it at Inox in Hyderabad with my parents. I enjoyed how the roles were played by both Shahid Kapur and Alia Bhatt. It was a very good story on drugs and its bad impact on society in Punjab.
Firstpost: After every tournament, you make sure you finish the backlog of your favourite movies. But now that you are busy practicing for the Olympics in Bengaluru, how do you plan to take out time for Salman's Sultan and Rajinikanth's Kabali that are releasing this month?
Saina Nehwal: Yeah, at the moment, it is only training sessions and training sessions with my coach Vimal Kumar ji at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Bengaluru. Though I must tell you that I have met both Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan, but am yet to meet Salman Khan.
Firstpost: Coach Vimal Kumar will not be amused with his ward talking more Bollywood than badminton so let us focus on the game, that will hopefully get India another medal. Do the expectations put too much pressure on you?
Saina Nehwal: Well, I am doing my best during the training. The rest is up to the grace of Almighty and my good health. I am wary of raising expectations. I do not want expectations to be very high.
Firstpost: What does the word pressure mean to Saina? How does it play on your mind?
Saina Nehwal: Frankly, I do not feel pressure too much. I feel that on the day I am 100 percent fit, I can defeat anyone. Yes, there are the initial butterflies in the tummy just when we step on to the court. But once the match starts, everything settles down. So match pressure or atmosphere, is something I enjoy, it is a positive. I try to fight to overcome pressure in the match.
Firstpost: Having seen many of your matches, there is always a strong Indian presence in the crowd rooting for you. When you are on court, do you shut out the spectators or do you listen to all the voices?
Saina Nehwal: No, I do not shut them out of my mind. In fact, I enjoy it. I never have any issues with their cheering or shouting my name. I remember very less of it after the match. In fact, I have always received a lot of crowd support in Indonesia. It is almost like a second home. Interestingly, during the recent Australia Open, the crowd was rooting both for me and my Chinese opponent. So while Indians were saying `Saina', the Chinese in the crowd were saying `China'. It sounded like`Saina-China'.
Firstpost: Does all the advice that your coach has given you before the match, come to you during difficult moments or are you like a lone warrior, fighting your own battle?
Saina Nehwal: I work on one advice – that I am a player and have the potential to do it. All the talk and the advice is there in the mind. We do spend time studying the opponent's strengths and weaknesses before the match.
Firstpost: At a platform like the Olympics, is the pressure of playing for the national flag any different from say, the Super Series tournaments?
Saina Nehwal: No, till now such things have not really crossed my mind. Maybe, since it is a mega event that takes place once in four years with the atmosphere of the huge Olympics village, it is there somewhere at the back of one's mind.
Firstpost: What is a typical day in Saina Nehwal's life, now that there is barely a month to go before you set out for Rio.
Saina Nehwal: The entire day is spent in different sessions of training with sparring partners in three sessions of five hours in total – two, two and one hour sessions. Then there is full stretching with the physio, good nutritious meals and sound sleep. Then there is also a bit of entertainment on TV before I sleep.
Firstpost: That is quite a taxing schedule. Are you 100 percent fit now? You have been battling injuries this year.
Saina Nehwal: I feel I am fit, with some nagging injuries. I am running nicely. Between mid-December and the beginning of March, I could not play any tournaments due to injuries.
Firstpost: You were number one last year, you are ranked sixth now. Does that affect you?
Saina Nehwal: It is all the impact of injuries and not playing tournaments where I was number one. It does not bother me. I believe that on any day, anyone in the top 10 or 12 players in the world can beat anyone else. There is not much to choose between the players at that level.
Firstpost: I have known you from your early days and seen that your USP is that you never give up. Where does this aggression come from and what is your own understanding of it?
Saina Nehwal: People saw me like this and noticed it. I said after the Australia Open that my aggression was good against opponents throughout the tournament. I basically hate to lose. Maybe that is my aggression. I have to pick up the shuttle from my opponent, keep my body fit to be able to do that. That is aggression for me.
Firstpost: Is it more or less than Virat Kohli's aggression? He praised you for your aggression at the Australia Open.
Saina Nehwal: Nothing to compare with Virat!
Firstpost: Who do you think will be your biggest threats at Rio?
Saina Nehwal: Let us see the draw. All the top players will be at Rio.
Firstpost: Have you charted out specific game plans for specific players?
Saina Nehwal: Not now, let me see when we come nearer to Olympics.
Firstpost: You also realise your game would have been studied and dissected in detail by your opponents and their coaches.
Saina Nehwal: It is for every player, every opponent to try to see and dissect it.
Firstpost: For the first time, two women badminton players from India, you and PV Sindhu, will take part in the Olympics. What does it say about women badminton power in India?
Saina Nehwal: Women power is certainly on the rise in badminton in India. Many more players are coming up now. It is a healthy sign and a good trend. We should have more cities producing more badminton players.
Firstpost: Your mother is with you in Bengaluru. Being a former player herself, does she still hold out those precious badminton tips for you like she used to?
Saina Nehwal: She helps me to keep fit and is a very good guide to me. Since I am now training in Bengaluru and not in my hometown Hyderabad, her presence ensures I do not feel homesick. Papa is back there in Hyderabad. Yes she understands the game but she essentially tries to ensure I stay positive, she boosts my morale.
Firstpost: What is your message for your rivals
Saina Nehwal: They know it well and are already on course to train better and fight all rivals for the top honours.
Firstpost: And what would you like to tell India?
Saina Nehwal: We are seven badminton players representing India, please support for our success at the Olympics.