For more than a year that she has been training with Vimal Kumar at the Prakash Padukone badminton academy, Saina Nehwal has battled home sickness more than anything else. To help her overcome that dreadful feeling, for the past few months, her mother Usha Rani has stayed with her, to boost her morale and ensure she does not feel lonely. Badminton players from Hyderabad occasionally drop in to meet her, to keep her spirits up.
Badminton, after all, like any other sport is as much played in the mind as on the court. As India’s best shuttler, seeded fifth in the Rio Olympics prepares for battle that starts on Thursday, she would be acutely conscious of the pressure. The bronze medallist at the London Olympics would be expected to improve on the metal this time, given the fact that she is 100 per cent fit too.
Saina herself concedes she is not a natural talent. She is a trained player. And what sets her apart is her grit and determination and her never-say-die spirit. It came to the fore during the finals of the Australian Open this year, when she came back into the game fighting hard. She was so aggressive that even a Virat Kohli, known for his on-field aggression complimented Saina.
Saina will be conscious that her rival players and coaches would have studied her pluses and minuses very minutely this time. She was world number one last year and every player would come to court against her with a detailed plan to execute. The other big point to note is that it is not just the Chinese who are the big threats on the circuit. Players like Carolina Marin of Spain, Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand and Tai Tzu Ying of Taiwan have ensured that there is enough non-Chinese competition to breach as well.
There is very little to choose between the top ten players and any one of them can beat another on her day. So the challenge is to be alert and on top of the game every single game.
At a personal level, Saina also realises that her coach also will be under the scanner. Training with Pullela Gopichand won her the bronze medal in 2012. Can Vimal Kumar who helped her top the rankings chart in 2015, do better in Rio?
As part of strategy, Saina has worked both on her fitness and her on-court game. But it is the mindgames that aggressive opponents like Marin are known to play, that could make the difference. While the trick is to stay calm, keep the mind uncluttered and cut yourself off from the surround sound, Saina knows that on the world’s biggest stage, rivals try every trick in the book, including attempts to intimidate to get the better of opposition.
Rio offers Saina her best chance to go for gold. Knowing Saina, in case anything goes wrong, she wouldn’t want to blame it on Rio.
(T S Sudhir is the author of Saina Nehwal’s biography, published in July 2012)