By TS Sudhir
“This medal is yours, Papa.”
“Thank you beta.”
Those five words from Olympics 2012 bronze medallist in badminton women’s singles Saina Nehwal to her father Dr Harvir Singh, marked the realisation of a dream that Saina’s parents had seen 13 years ago. To see their daughter on the podium at the Olympic Games.
Saina’s return home was loud, exuberant and enthusiastic. It deserved to be as well, for in a sport dominated by the Chinese, an Indian shuttler for the first time had made a mark. Also because in a country that worships only cricket as religion, it is important to acknowledge players who are defining a new faith. At Hyderabad airport, students from the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy rubbed shoulders with Harvir’s scientist colleagues from the Directorate of Oilseeds Research. And Saina, her coach Pullela Gopichand and fellow shuttler P Kashyap were taken into the academy in a decorated horse carriage.
The Hyderabad skyline was dotted with hoardings welcoming the champion. One of them from the noodles brand, that Saina endorses, congratulating her for the masaledaarperformance at the Olympics.
“I was a normal girl, today I am a champion. I always wanted to be an Olympic champion. I am proud of myself, that I did what I said. When I was standing on the podium, I started weeping thinking of all the years of hard work that Gopi sir and I put in,” Saina said.
What this medal will do is to inspire a whole lot of youngsters who will seriously look at badminton as a career option. Like G Ruthvika Shivani, who was admitted to the Gopichand Academy on the day the team left for London. Ruthvika, from the Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh, is already the under-15 National champion in singles and doubles and the doubles under-17 national champion. And the prospect of rubbing shoulders with Saina excites her to no end.
“I have never met her but now I will get to see how she practises and I hope she will also guide me and give useful tips,” Ruthvika said.
The 15-year-old who started playing badminton at the age of seven is clear that she wants to be another Saina Nehwal.
However, Saina insists her life won’t change much even after the Olympic victory. “I will take a break for 3-4 days and then it will be back to business on court,” she says. For “changing the colour of the medal next time,” is the diktat of her father.
But perhaps the tougher task starts now. One will be to motivate herself for the challenges ahead. The pitfall with almost conquering the Mount Everest of tournaments, is that the player could find the fire in her belly getting extinguished. Two, in a country starved of role models, the media attention and publicity could make it very difficult to stay grounded. All of which could reflect in the performance in the tournaments to follow.
The good thing about Saina is that she has a mature head on her shoulders. She needs to remind herself that she is still a work in progress and there are miles to go before she sleeps. Fortunately in her family and Gopi, she has people who will not let have her head in the clouds.
Gopi has already revised his expectations from Saina. Seeing a player like 33-year-old Tine Baun making it into the quarters at London, Gopi feels Saina is good enough to go for another eight years especially since at 22, she has age on her side. Which means two more Olympics, two more Asian Games, and many All Englands and world championships.
Gopi’s mother Subbaravamma, who manages the Academy’s administration, says her son’s task as coach isn’t over.
“He has to produce many more Sainas. I wish for a day when two Indians are playing against each other in the finals of the Olympics,” she said. And in case you think it is wishful thinking, she adds, “This academy is a lucky place. Whatever I have wished for at this place, it has come true.”
Four years ago, Saina’s spirit was broken when she lost in the quarter-final at the Beijing Olympics and no amount of pep talk by Gopi could cheer her. Finally Gopi told Saina, on their return flight to Hyderabad, “Report for practise tomorrow morning at 6.”
Saina’s reply was unexpected. “Can we start at 7 am instead, Sir?”
(T S Sudhir is the author of `Saina Nehwal : An Inspirational Biography’)