Saina Nehwal burst upon the unsuspecting badminton world and into the consciousness of the Indian sports fan like a bolt of lightning in May 2006 when as a precious teenager of 16 years, she hammered her way into the four star Philippines open and snatched the title from the jaws of few highly ranked players, including the then world no.2 Xu Huaiwen. At that time the Hisar-Haryana born Saina was ranked 86th in the BWF world rankings.
From that sensational win Nehwal never looked back. Indeed the upsurge in the popularity of the sport in years 2006 to about 2018 was mainly due to her. She made a unique and highly profitable pairing with coach Pullela Gopichand, and they went on a winning spree never seen before, not only in India but also rest of the world.
Afterall, India never had an example or a legacy to follow in singles players of the distaff side.
In men singles we have had brilliant individuals on and off, self-produced and self-coached with no one guiding them. Nandu Natekar, Dinesh Khanna, Prakash Padukone, late Syed Modi, Gopichand, all top ten ranked shuttlers of their times. Padukone of course was ranked number 1 in his time. In ladies singles the closest player who came to be respected abroad was Aparna Popat – the nine times national champion, who won Commonwealth silver and bronze medals and rose up to world rank 14.
Nehwal however never followed history and played at will, not intimated by the reputation of any player across the net.
I remember Gopichand telling me once when I was working on his biography, “I don’t know what she is made of, but she is just not bothered about names and reputations of anyone. She Just wants to win that’s all.” Himself a very hard working player during his career, he was delighted to see the same qualities in the teenager who simply wanted to bulldoze past each and every opponent.
Nehwal was a real hustler on court, the quintessential street fighter type, who just did not want the shuttle to fall into her court, come hell or high water. Not much grace in her game or movements, like former shuttling queen Ami Ghia, or the calm poise of Aparna Popat. Nonetheless, Nehwal just came at you throwing everything she had, bludgeoning you into submission, with attack and pace. This was akin to the style of former national record holder Madhumita Bisht. This deadly duo of Gopichand and Nehwal went on to win 24 titles at the BWF level.
A bronze at 2012 London Games, a silver and bronze in world championship, two bronze medals in Uber cup, three gold and one silver and a bronze medal in Commonwealth games, two bronze medals at Asian games, three bronze at Asian championship, gold and bronze at world junior championships: these are 17 medals at the highest level of world badminton that she won, apart from the 24 BWF circuit titles she won in a glittering career.
In 2008, Nehwal won the Chinese Taipei open at age 18, defeating the then reigning world champion Zhu lin. By June 2010 she was ranked world number 3 and climbed to 2nd spot by July 2010. In 2014 she won the China open a by April 2015 Nehwal was at the top of the summit.
An elated nation bestowed on her the Arjuna Award, Khel Ratna, Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan in quick succession. A shuttler, who remained in top ten rank for almost 11 years, became advertisers delight as she was roped in for 17 well-paying endorsements, had two books written about her exploits, and had a biopic made on her life. She was in all probability, also the richest badminton player in history when she was at her peak. A fantastic life any which way you look.
A philanthropist of sorts, Nehwal’s is 18th on list of most charitable athletes in the world. She would have won more titles and medals but injuries hampered her progress. She missed the 2014 CWG games due to foot injury. She missed most of the 2020 and 2021 season either to cancellation of tournaments due to Covid or because she was injured. Her biggest problem has been Planter Fasciitis, a medical problem that affects the legs, specifically the heels of the foot. She is now 31; obviously she can’t play like a teenager. The wear and tear was bound to happen, to take a toll on her body.
She went for Uber cup and other tournaments in Europe last year and had to concede matches due to groin and foot injuries. She could not play the tournaments in Asia also when the international badminton caravan moved there for 6 events including the world championship. Word has it that she is simply not thinking of retiring any time soon, and like her idol Roger Federer she wants to play till the 2024 Paris games. That is a good two years away.
“Age is just a number. Saina knows how to win. It is how she feels that matters. She has had a most extraordinary career. She has been a top ten player for almost 11 years. Very very consistent. A great champion. She knows her body, how it behaves, when to train when to rest. If she wants to play in Paris, then we should welcome her decision. Her fitness is her problem and she knows how to remain fit and continue playing tournaments,” says former nine-time national champion Popat.
Popat feels one of the great quality that Nehwal has is her ability to learn fast. She adapts very fast to the changing rhythm of the match: learns from her mistakes and does not repeat them. “I played her in the finals of the 2006 national championship and defeated her to win my 9 title. Same year she won the Philippines open and never looked back. She was not a natural net player but within couple of years she was one of the best net player in the world. In conclusion, I will say that regarding her future let her decide. Saina will make the correct decision.”
However, it is obvious that this great champion is at a crossroad. Last two years have been a nightmare. Beset with injuries and the BWF schedule repeatedly hit by Covid she had not been able to play as she likes. She has been losing in first or second rounds which never happened before. Till 2018 she had been able to defeat likes of PV Sindhu. In the Commonwealth games and Indian National championships, Nehwal had defeated Sindhu.
And the nightmare continued for her in 2022 also. In the first round at the India open in Delhi she managed a 22-20 first game win over barely known opponent Tereza Svabikova (retired hurt in the second game).
But then came a shocker when the once mighty Nehwal, lost tamely to Malvika Bansod 17-21, 9-21 in the second round. Bansod is a young and upcoming Indian player. What is one to make of this scoreline? Where does she go from here?
Nehwal clearly has to introspect to see where she is heading.
Clearly her body is not responding to commands the brain is giving. One can fight anything but not the ravages of father time. She was a real ziddi player, prepared to chase the bird to hell and back. But today the body, which used to move so effortlessly, gliding around the court as if on ball bearings, is slow and sluggish. Her fans, including this writer, would like to see her at her best always, the frown in her face as she contemplates what the opponent will do next, her badminton computer working overtime, as slowly, but surely her vicelike grip on the proceedings brought in the results she wanted.
Well it is her decision what she wants to do regarding her career. But a true legend is one who retires at the right time so that people ask, why you retired, rather than asking you when will you retire?