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BADMINTON player Saina Nehwal is a young woman of few words; she prefers to let her racket do the talking. All of 19, Nehwal was recently awarded the Padma Shree.
She ranks sixth among the top singles badminton players in the world and is the only Indian to have reached the singles quarter finals at the Olympics, and won the World Junior Badminton Championships in 2008. In 2009, she also smashed her way through the Indonesian Open. In a chat with Amrita Bose for Careers360, Saina reminisces about her school days and shares what it takes to turn professional.
Q. What kind of a student were you?
A. I have changed many schools. I studied at the Campus School Hisar (CCS HAU) in Haryana from lower KG to class three. Then from the fourth to the tenth standard I went to Bhartiya Vidhya Bhawan’s Vidhyasharam School and the National Institute of Rural Development (NIRD) School Rajendranagar, also in Hyderabad. I was quite shy in school. I was studious and paid attention to my studies.
Q. When did you start thinking of badminton as a career?
A. I was associated with badminton since birth as both my parents are badminton players and champions. But my entry in this as a profession was by chance. I was spotted by Coach PSS Nani Prasad Rao in Hyderabad. He agreed to take me under his wing as a trainee at the Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh (SAAP) summer camp in 1999.
Q. Tell us about your first badminton game, your coaches and your experiences after you turned professional.
A. My first and most memorable moment was the Under Ten Andhra Pradesh tournament I won at Tirupathi in 1999. I have had a series of great coaches, right from PSS Nani Prasad Rao to SM Arif to Goverdhan Reddy till 2004. Since 2004, I have been training under Pullela Gopichand. I especially enjoyed training under Malaysian coach Musbin during the Malaysian Super Series Open this year. My coaches might have got tired training me but I have enjoyed every minute of it.
Q. Take us through a day in the life of a badminton player...
A. Everyday is a gruelling nine-ten hours schedule except perhaps Sundays. My day begins at 7.30 a.m. with training and is divided into sessions with fellow players and my coach Gopichand till about evening. And that’s just on-court. Off-court activities involve extensive physical training at the gym and stamina-building exercises.
Q. What were the lows and hurdles you faced?
A. When I started out I had no sponsorship. I had to foot my own bills. There was the huge cost for my kit, shoes, rackets and other equipment. My minimum expenses daily were about Rs. 300-400. I had to travel a long distance just to get training. There was a constant fear of failure and the lack of sponsorship did not help either.
Q. Your advice to those who wish to enter into the professional sports arena. The good, the bad and the ugly...
A. First, be fair to yourself and ask whether you really want to take up sports, professionally. Even if you don’t intend to play professionally, definitely play to keep fit and for your health. If you are a natural in the game, then work hard, practise every day. But come what may, don’t leave your studies.
If you want to play professional sports, make sure you maintain a balance between playing and your education. Today, in every sport in India apart from cricket only a few people are on the top. In the field of tennis for example, most players are already old. Why isn’t any new talent coming up? We need new, younger players in individual sports.
Q. What do you think can be done to encourage sports besides cricket as a career option?
A. Cricket is currently the darling of the masses and the media. Individual games like shooting and badminton are less liked because no one knows much about them. But that’s where the real gold is. We got a gold medal in the Olympics for shooting. We need to do well much more in sports at the grass root level and encourage players of other games in India because that’s where there is an abundance of talent. I hope that other sports in India get their due, soon.