Saina Nehwal on overcoming injuries, winning titles, and inspiring a Bollywood biopic
She may be one of the world’s most celebrated badminton players, but when Saina Nehwal was little, everyone knew her as Steffi, a nickname her mother gave her. Just two years before she was born in Hisar, Haryana, tennis champ Steffi Graf had become the only player in the world to achieve the Golden Slam (winning four Grand Slam titles and the Olympic gold medal in a single year). Back then, television viewers could rattle off the names of all the top tennis players: Boris Becker, Monica Seles, Pete Sampras, Martina Navratilova, Andre Agassi and Graf. But badminton? We played it in school and in our backyards. We knew Prakash Padukone, but we rarely watched any matches. That was until Saina Nehwal burst onto the court and almost single-handedly popularised the sport we’d all taken for granted.
ARMY OF ONE
The sport that now defines her life didn’t always come naturally to her. At nine, Nehwal told her mother she found badminton difficult. Usha Nehwal’s reply was brief and emphatic: “You can win an Olympic medal.” Tiger mum-level pressure notwithstanding, over the next two decades Nehwal soared into the spotlight with a series of firsts. In 2006, she became the first Indian woman to win a four-star badminton tournament. In 2008, she entered the top 10 badminton ranking. In 2015, she won the World No. 1 ranking and became the first Indian woman to achieve this feat. And in 2012, her mother had an opportunity to say, “I told you so” when Nehwal became the first Indian badminton player to win a medal (bronze) at the London Olympics. She still drives her ‘lucky’ BMW X6 that she was gifted when she won this medal.
She talks softly, seriously, but smiles frequently. As we speak, Nehwal likens her role of a national sports icon to a soldier working tirelessly for his or her country. But she’s more general than infantry, and she’s certainly led a successful revolution. It’s been 20 years since she won her first earnings, a humble five-hundred rupees at a district tournament in Tamil Nadu. Today, this self-made champion is one of India’s top-paid athletes. There might be newer stars on the court—the younger PV Sindhu outranks and out-earns her now—but Nehwal’s legacy in sporting history is sealed as the pioneer. She is, after all, the key reason the racquet sport escalated in popularity.