Saina Nehwal might just be 26, but the shuttler has seen Indian badminton evolve over a span of three Olympics.
From two badminton players that represented the country in the 2008 Beijing Games to five in London four years after to seven that will take the flight to Rio in a few months’ time, Saina has been the common thread. And, as she talks about India sending their largest ever badminton contingent for the 2016 Olympics, there is an unmistakable sense of pride in her.
As a badminton player, I had seen two participants from India in 2008 Beijing Games, which became five in 2012 and now, there are seven of us going to Rio. It is a fast increase in the graph of badminton in India,” Saina told dna.
“I am very glad that because of me, hard training masters, good infrastructure facilities, financial assistance as well as the will of the rest of the players, these changes have happened in badminton in India within a span of eight to 10 years,” she said.
The top Indian shuttler has been at the forefront of the changes that hit badminton. If Saina’s historic bronze medal at the 2012 Games was the catalyst of the boom in the sport, her gradual yet tremendous rise to the World No. 1 rankings last year took it a couple of levels higher. Naturally, thus, she is bound to feel like the leader of the pack, who will have the extra responsibility of motivating her singles companions PV Sindhu and Kidambi Srikanth, both first-time Olympians. “Certainly, I will motivate the other members to do well at Rio,” she said. “But these players have had exposure to prestigious events, which gives the added advantage to a player for winning titles. All of us are tested well in various international tournaments and all of us have beaten world players in badminton. So, I am sure that this contingent will taste much success in these tournaments.”
One player who Saina will have a keen eye on in Rio is her rival and city-mate, Sindhu. The 20-year-old was just 16 when she saw Saina kissing India’s first ever Olympic medal in badminton. Fours year on, she has come a long way, and her senior is especially happy about it.
“Sindhu has won medals in the World Cup (World Championships) and also in many more tournaments. She is young too, and I wish she brings many more laurels to the country,” Saina said.
Saina, who was out of action for the first two months of the year due to injury, has developed a rather worrying trend. The World No. 8 has crashed out in the semifinals – Swiss Open, India Open, Malaysia Open, Badminton Asia Championships – of her last four tournaments. She believes it is due to lack of high level training.
“I wanted to win all those tournaments but failed in between, so there is a lot of scope to do better. The reason (for the semifinal exits) was lack of very high level of practice on courts. Because I was recovering from an injury, I was not able to accelerate my pace further,” she said.
However, she added that the jinx will break sooner rather than later. “This trend will go, as we have good time to practice more on courts. I will do my best in the upcoming tournaments,” she said.
From being World No. 1 in October last year to No. 2 in the first week of March this year, Saina’s ranking has fallen to eight since the start of April. Not that is it bothering her too much. “It is very difficult to raise your ranking without winning tournaments. To get back to where I was, my coach (Vimal Kumar) is putting in the best of training skills on me and I am committing myself to those to the best of my abilities,” Saina said.