Despite Cricket

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Badminton star Saina Nehwal repaid her nation’s indifference with a sporting crown

Sometimes, Rahul Bose makes sense. Speaking at a function, which announced the World Under-21 Volleyball tournament that will be held in Pune next month, Bose, who has captained the Indian rugby team, said that for a country to be considered developed, it must be good in at least two or three sports.

India has eyes only for one sport. There are small pools of people who like football, tennis and Formula One, but largely in India, only cricket is considered a true spectacle. This is because we are not yet a true sporting nation where regular people naturally take to various sports. Thus, the media is reluctant to give extensive coverage to anything other than cricket, and corporates are unwilling to put their money in other sports.

Badminton is one of the casualties. Indian badminton players enter international tournaments facing immense odds. It is against this background that we must understand the enormous achievement of Saina Nehwal, who won the Super Series Indonesian Open. In the final, she played an astonishing 27-stroke rally, which most Indians deservedly missed.

Despite the odds, 19-year-old Saina, and others like her in the ‘wrong’ sports, keep at it. Saina, whom friends call ‘Steffi’, has been perfecting her art away from the limelight for years. But since her 2006 win in the Philippines Open and her latest win, Indians are beginning to understand her special place in the sporting world. “Badminton players are reconciled with the fact that they will not enjoy the status of cricketers,” says Aparna Popat, the Indian shuttler who reigned before Saina. “It’s an individual effort. They have only their coaches and family to motivate them. But as we can see, things are changing for other sports.”

‘Gritty’ is a common description of Saina. The attribute was evident in that 27-stroke point (counting the serve), which took her to 14-8 in the deciding game of the final against China’s Wang Lin. Initially, Saina was on the defensive, running all around the court. Then she returned two smashes in a row and the point turned on its head. Saina hammered three smashes of her own, each followed by a synchronised roar from the crowd. When the point, at last, was hers, she let out a high-pitched scream, pumping her left fist.

Aggressive play comes naturally to Saina. But in the final, she also played the feel shots well. Prakash Padukone was impressed. “She was strong at the net and used the dribble effectively, along with some deception,” says Padukone, the 1980 All England champion famed for his touch play (Touch Play, in fact, is the name of his biography). Padukone feels this is how Indian shuttlers should play against their international rivals instead of trying to beat them at their game.

Saina said, “The turning point in my career came during the Beijing Olympics (where she reached the quarterfinal), which gave me the conviction to do well against the best in the business. I am more patient now on court and let the opponent make mistakes. I always had a good attack.”

The respect of peers satisfies a craftsman more than anything else. For years, Aditi Mutatkar and Saina were rivals, going neck and neck till Saina broke ahead with the win in the Philippines. It would be human for Aditi to feel some envy at Saina’s success, especially since her own career has been hindered by injury. But she has no qualms in saying, “She inspires me.” Saina, Aditi says, is fearless. She has the desire to reach the top.

Harvir Singh and Usha Rani, Saina’s parents, watched the final at their home in Hyderabad. They spoke to her three hours after the match and slept relieved and happy. Macho, the family dog of 11 years, presumably did the same.