How Saina's success on court began with struggles off court

It was sometime in 2000 that S M Arif, the chief coach at the stadium, happened to watch Saina’s game closely and predicted that "in two years, she will be a worldbeater because of her attitude."
How Saina's success on court began with struggles off court
How Saina's success on court began with struggles off court
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Excerpted with permission from Saina Nehwal: An Inspirational Biography by T S Sudhir, published by Nimby books.

One summer doesn’t make a champion player. But it is at every summer camp that coaches like Nani Prasad and Goverdhan Reddy look for talent and the right attitude.

In the summer of 2011, the badminton courts at Lal Bahadur Indoor Stadium were swarming with 120 kids, each of them in smart shorts, T-shirt and sneakers with racquets in hand, practising serves, hoping to emulate a Saina Nehwal.

"It is difficult to monitor so many kids," says Goverdhan.

"It is quite possible that real good talent may just not be noticed. In fact, we have stopped taking more kids even though the interest level is higher than what it was in 1999. We had 120 kids then and we have maintained the same number."

Once the summer coaching camp in 1999 was over, Nani Prasad told Harvir Singh that he would like Saina to continue playing badminton. Not that Harvir and Usha Rani needed any prodding; they were as keen.

And within just days of the conclusion of the summer camp in 1999, Saina was asked by Nani Prasad in June to travel to Chennai to take part in the Under-10 category in the Krishna Khaitan Tournament. This tournament is considered one of the most prestigious badminton tournaments even today.

Like any family that takes the first tournament very seriously, Saina’s parents bought her an expensive Isometric racquet for Rs 2,700. Most players those days used the Carbonex racquets that used to cost Rs 1,700.

"I made the mistake of sending her without Usha or I accompanying her. We were very tense,’" remembers Harvir. "But the little girl performed well, reaching the quarters where she lost to Shravani of the East Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh. Saina received an award of Rs 500 and a certificate for her efforts. But someone, either by mistake or deliberately, took away her expensive racquet. So, when I received her at the Secunderabad railway station, Saina was in tears, heartbroken at the loss. I hugged her and told her I was proud of her for doing so well on debut."

Goverdhan remembers Saina as a girl with a strong shoulder whose baseline hits were good but drops were slow. "But she was good for her age and showed promise," says Goverdhan.

Saina's next outing was to a tournament in Thane in Maharashtra where she lost in the Under-10 semi-final.

Goverdhan says he remembers her exiting the court after the match, as if it happened yesterday. "There was a grill that she had to cross. Her mother Usha Rani was standing beside the grill. The moment Saina crossed, Usha Rani slapped her. I rushed asking, Aunty why are you hitting her? Her reply was: 'She didn’t play the game the way she should have. She just did not concentrate'."

Saina Nehwal/Facebook

Looking back, Saina says her mother was totally involved with her game. "During those growing up years, she made me eat a lot, made me more strong so that I could compete in five to six categories in the same tournament. She really pushed me a lot."

Usha Rani’s phenomenal motivation and dedication to keep Saina’s focus on badminton does not come as a surprise to those who have known about her own unfulfilled dream of being a national level badminton player.

Chandranshu moved towards volleyball instead of badminton. But Saina’s interest in badminton was actively encouraged and supported by Usha Rani.

Those who knew Harvir Singh and Usha Rani as the parents of a young Saina would notice the similarities between mother and daughter. By encouraging Saina, the mother was turning the clock back on her own life, her aspirations and dreams.

In many senses, Saina on court was like a younger Usha Rani. "What I could not achieve, Saina should," she would say.

Like Harvir, Goverdhan credits Saina's badminton sense to her mother. "Till she was 13 or 14 years old, Usha Rani’s efforts were outstanding. She would take care of her diet and ensure Saina was punctual and on time. She also influenced Saina's mindset and guided her how to play. I would tell Aunty that on their way to and back from the stadium, she should keep talking about the game to Saina in the bus or the auto."

Saina worried about upsetting her mother by not playing well. It was a combination of fear and respect for someone who understood the game and knew what was needed to excel in it.

Today Saina credits her genes for her ability to work hard. "When I was 9, 10, 11 years old, I used to spend two to three hours just at the gym," she recalls.

But while Usha Rani was strict when it came to badminton, Harvir's forte was to encourage Saina if her spirits drooped. This carrot-and-stick approach worked very well to make Saina a better badminton player.

What that summer camp did for Saina was to give her a second home at the Lal Bahadur Indoor Stadium till about mid-2004, when she moved to Gopichand’s camp.

Every morning, she would be among the first to arrive with her father at 6 am and train till 10.30 am. She would be back on court at 2 pm, this time with her mother, and play till 7.30 pm.

Once school reopened, she trained from six till eight in the morning and then again from four till seven in the evening.

The same month, Saina became the cynosure of the badminton circuit in Hyderabad, by winning the Under -10, Under-13 singles and the Under-13 doubles titles. And by virtue of being the district champ, she got direct entry into the Under-10 Andhra Pradesh State Championship in Tirupati, a temple town.

Interestingly, Saina won the Under-10 title by defeating Shravani, to whom she had lost to in Chennai. The `150 award was made much more sweet by the special VIP darshan that was organised for the little champion and Harvir at the abode of Lord Venkateswara in Tirumala.

While Saina Nehwal was fast becoming a known name in India’s junior badminton circuit, the everyday routine of taking her for practice was quite strenuous for her parents.

It was a 25 km ride on the scooter from Rajendranagar to the stadium and Saina had to be there very early. This meant the child had to be up at four in the morning.

Many a time Saina would doze off on the back seat of the scooter, which prompted Usha Rani to accompany the father and daughter.

In March 2000, the family purchased a Maruti 800 car only for Saina. Maruti is another name for Hanuman, the Monkey God, who is a symbol of strength and positive energy.

What worked to Saina's advantage is that 1999 saw a talented pool of players taking to badminton. "Manaswini, Sharda, Gurusaidutt, D Nivedita, N Nivedita, Vinay, Vijay, Sai," Goverdhan reels off the names. "Saina's game improved because she played with the boys."

It was sometime in 2000 that S M Arif, the chief coach at the stadium, happened to watch Saina’s game closely and predicted that "in two years, she will be a worldbeater because of her attitude."

Those were prophetic words by Arif Sir, as he is called by everyone. He was the winner of the Dronacharya Award winner in 2000 and has a keen eye for spotting talent. No badminton player in Andhra Pradesh has come up without Arif guiding him or her. He was the one who coached Pullela Gopichand, Chetan Anand and Jwala Gutta.

Arif comes from a family of leather garment exporters. The family was shocked by his decision to opt out of the business and take up badminton instead.

"I, in fact, started playing badminton only in college. Till then it was basketball, cricket, table tennis and football. At the age of 27, I became a coach, employed by the Sports Authority of India."

Gopichand was among the first batch of players he coached from 1989. Just when Saina was getting known in state-level badminton, coach Nani Prasad was transferred from Hyderabad to Vijayawada.

Nani was very keen that Saina join the academy there and spent a lot of time trying to convince Saina’s parents to send her to Vijayawada. "He even came to our home one evening and promised to give Saina full attention if we sent her to Vijayawada," recalls Harvir.

"Nani Sir kept saying, 'Do not take her away from me. Saina is a golden girl.' But I declined as it was not an option the family was keen to exercise."

Saina now had to be moved to Arif for guidance. Harvir realized moving to Arif from Nani Prasad would do Saina’s game a world of good. But then Indian sport is bound by technicalities and procedures.

Arif was a SAI coach while Nani was employed by the Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh. Arif asked for a letter from Saina’s parents explaining the reasons for the shift before taking her under his wing.

Arif, seeing that she was performing in tournaments, drew up a plan for her training and entrusted the hour-to-hour implementation to Goverdhan Reddy.

"She would never say no," remembers Arif. "She was a strongly built girl even at the age of 10 and pushed her limits. She used to drink a lot of milk and other players used to tease her, calling her 'Haryana ki bhains (A buffalo from Haryana)'. She liked to excel whether it was in the warm-up sprints or the off-court physical training. The way she would react to the rigours of training was commendable."

Those were heady days for Indian badminton. Pullela Gopichand had replicated the feat of the legendary Prakash Padukone by winning the All-England Championship in 2001.

The victory inspired a badminton wave in the country and especially enthused kids like Saina who had occasionally seen Gopi practise on a neighbouring court.

Badminton pundits credit Gopi's triumph with having led to new talent taking to the game in India in the first decade of 2000.

In many senses, 2002 was a landmark year for Saina. Realising she was far better than the competition in the junior circuit, Arif asked Saina to play in a senior tournament in Mumbai to get exposure to tougher competition.

Saina lost in the quarters to Shruti Kurien and headlines the following day said Sania's dream run had been halted by her teammate.

Saina, then just 12, was given an award for being the most promising player.

Shruti Kurien, also from Hyderabad, went on to forge a very successful doubles partnership with Jwala Gutta. They won the national women’s doubles title without a break between 2002 and 2008 and then broke up because of personal differences.

Sitting on the steps of the visitors' gallery inside the Lal Bahadur Indoor Stadium, I asked Shruti if she remembered the match.

"Of course, yes," exclaimed Shruti. "She wasn’t experienced but was very gritty. I think I defeated her 11-9, 11-0. It was not difficult for me because I used to play her daily and was familiar with the ammunition she possessed."

By virtue of having seen Saina at that age, Shruti is one of the best persons to analyze Saina’s growth as a player. And unlike most people, who talk of Saina as an introvert, Shruti has a completely different take on Saina's personality.

"Introvert and Saina!" she exclaims, rolling her eyes.

"On the contrary, she talks a lot. In fact, when she was about 12 years old, she would talk about how she wanted to be the first Indian girl to win the All-England title and also be a doctor at the same time."

Those were the days when Saina used to carry two bags. One contained her badminton kit and the other her school books. The two bags travelled with her to all national camps whether in Bangalore, Vijayawada or Mumbai.

Shruti attributes Saina's spectacular growth and rise to her attitude. "She is one of the few players who was very clear in her mind and said to hell with her studies once she decided badminton was to be her calling. And now despite the pressures of being a role model, Saina has managed to stay grounded and kept her head on her shoulders."

Giving up a formal education was a tough call to take. Saina now admits that not doing Class Xll was a risky decision.

"Badminton is not a high-profile sport like cricket, where you have more chances of making it. But I had the confidence in myself that I would make it, that I would get the results and therefore I chose badminton over studies," says Saina.

Spurred on by the success in Mumbai, Arif pushed Saina to play the Under-19 Nationals in Guntur in November that year.

Remember, Saina was just 12 and a half then. A day before she was to leave, her mother, who was to accompany Saina, was hit by a motorbike on the road and had to be rushed to hospital.

Saina travelled to Guntur alone where she was made to feel special. That was because by then tales about Saina’s prowess had reached far and wide.

When she reached the tournament venue, she found a banner which read: "Go for gold 2012 Olympics".

The secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Badminton Association, Punnaiah Choudhary, says the slogan was coined keeping Saina in mind. "Everyone found her to be a player of international standard. And we thought she would blossom in 10 years. Today when you look back, you realize that she has fulfilled the promise she showed then."

Sania lost 11-0, 11-0 to Krishna Deka Raja in the finals, but after the match Punnaiah Choudhary said to Harvir, "Get a passport made. She will now go to Europe in February."

Her passport was delivered at home in three weeks. Saina was now in travel mode, most of the time. She continued her good form, finishing runner-up in the Under-16 and winning the Under-13 national title in Patna.

"Rabri Devi was the chief minister of Bihar then. She called us home where Lalu Prasad Yadav hugged both of us and made arrangements for our travel in Patna. I felt like a raja," says Harvir.

Foreign climes beckoned Saina in 2003 and she was bound for Denmark, Germany and Holland in February. It was more of an acclimatization trip, with Saina soaking in the exposure.

Harvir was asked by Arif to drop Saina at a preparatory camp organized by Srikant Wagh in Mumbai. Arif had sent with Harvir a note for Wagh which asked him to make Saina "do double practice like a boy because she is used to a higher workload."

Saina did well on the trip, reaching the quarters in two of the tournaments. Her maiden international title came at the Czechoslovakia Junior Open in December that year.

The Czech Ambassador to India received her in Delhi on her return because he was curious to meet this 13-year-old champion.

This title, along with her selection in the Indian Uber Cup team, signalled to everyone that she was indeed India’s rising badminton star.

Goverdhan says he made sure Saina was kept away from senior players who had toured abroad. "At that time the mindset among Indian players was that foreigners could never be beaten and so all talk would be in that frame of mind. I would keep Saina away from them."

While she was scorching the courts, school obviously took a back seat. Principal Satyanarayana Raju had given her permission to occasionally arrive an hour late and also leave after lunchtime. But she was playing in so many tournaments that she had less and less time for school. She even missed the crucial mid-term exam before her Class X board exams in 2005.

Raju offered Harvir a solution to the problem.

He told Harvir, "Your daughter is not coming to school. But she is a gem, we know. What I will do is to send every teacher to your home so that she knows all the lessons."

The board exams were in March 2005. She did the English paper well, Math was also okay. But before the social science paper, Saina wept, confiding in her father that she knew very little of the subject.

"But I did fairly well to score 70 per cent," says Saina, which was commendable because she hardly had time to spend with her textbooks.

Saina took admission in St Ann’s College in Mehdipatnam, the same college that Chandranshu had gone to but she could not continue her studies.

Statistics show that Indian sport loses three out of every four players in the years when they are between Class lX and Xll. Most young players are compelled to choose studies over sport.

Saina is among the few who haven't. From 1999, the Sports Authority of India used to give Saina a fellowship of Rs 700 along with a kit and second class train fare for tournaments.

In 2003, the Petroleum Sports Promotion Board offered her a fellowship of Rs 2,500. But her expenses were mounting. The commute from home to stadium and back twice a day and the cost of training, shoes and shuttlecocks was setting the family back by Rs 12,000 every month.

The tightrope walk continued till Yonex Sunrise Sports offered to sponsor Saina’s kit in 2002. Harvir and Usha Rani were, however, pleasantly surprised when Saina, just 14 and yet to write her Class X exam, was offered a job by Bharat Petroleum.

Harvir was also asked to appear alongside Saina for the interview in Bangalore, where they were surprised to find the legendary Prakash Padukone at the head of the interview panel.

"What do you want Saina to be, Padukone asked me," recalls Harvir. "When I replied, ‘A badminton player", he asked "Why not a scientist like you?"

He tried to needle me by playfully taunting me that she is not winning too many titles but only ending up as runner-up.

Among the many other questions that Saina was asked, one of them was "what is petroleum", to which she replied, "I have no idea."

Saina was given a fellowship of Rs 15,000 with an assurance that when she turned 18 she would be a fulltime employee of Bharat Petroleum. That moment came in 2008 when Saina was appointed Executive (Sports) in the oil major.

Since then, Saina has been promoted twice, and is now deputy manager with the PSU, earning a monthly salary of Rs 50,000.

But even as Saina was steadily climbing, Harvir's bank balance was diminishing. He rates the time between 1999-2004 as the toughest period of his life.

"I drew money from my provident fund some six times, mostly citing my wife's illness as the reason. Everyone in the office, of course, knew what the real reason was. Sometimes Rs 50,000, sometimes Rs 1 lakh. Of course, all of that has thankfully now been put back by me."

Young Saina had no clue about how every day was an expensive affair. Harvir ensured there was no discussion about these matters in the family and got on with the job of ensuring Saina's needs were taken care of.

"She was too young to understand all this and I did not want to disturb her," says Harvir.

Saina admits now she never knew he was borrowing from his provident fund to spend on the tournaments.

"I did not know where the money was coming from. I did not know that he was taking loans to send me to tournaments. My Mom used to travel with me and sometimes we would spend Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 on one championship. And I would take part in at least 10 in a year. But he never asked me before any tournament if I really want to play it or skip it."

As Saina started tasting success outside Hyderabad, especially abroad, telephone bills became another burden for the family. Saina admits she would be too lazy to acquire a local SIM card in a foreign land and would keep calling home to chat with her parents.

There would also be calls from the media.

Harvir says during the touring months in the Philippines Open and the World Junior Championship in 2006, the mobile bills were almost Rs 50,000.

All this mercifully seems a long way back now that Saina paid Rs 60 lakhs in income-tax in 2010 and Rs 1.5 crores in 2011.

The chartered accountant's fee alone was Rs 2.5 lakh.

Harvir says, "Those years were difficult years but today Saina has made sure there is no shortage of money. I wish every parent a daughter like Saina. If she had decided to study further she wouldn’t have earned like this."

In December 2005, the Mittal Foundation came on board to sponsor Saina. But the Rs 25 lakhs provided as grant per year was based on expenditure. Bills had to be submitted for the foundation to clear the money.

In 2009, Ravi Reddy of the Deccan Chronicle Group, whose daughter Anjana was once too big and strong for Saina, sought out Harvir and invited father and daughter to his home in Banjara Hills in Hyderabad.

"Who is sponsoring Saina?" he asked. "The Mittal Foundation," replied Harvir. "How much are they giving?" "Rs 25 lakhs." "She is my daughter. I will give Rs 1 crore."

The Mittal Foundation agreed to let go of Saina and the Deccan Chronicle became Saina’s main sponsor.

Hearing Ravi Reddy’s words, Harvir remembered the game between Saina and Anjana in May 1999 at the Lal Bahadur Indoor Stadium that had been declared null and void.

Saina Nehwal had now won the match.

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