Saina Nehwal may be the first Indian badminton player to win an Olympic medal, the first female Indian shuttler to reach world No.1 and the first Indian woman to win three Commonwealth Games gold medals in badminton, but how did she discover her sport? What links her to tennis’ Serena Williams? And what would she be doing if she wasn’t one of the world’s finest athletes?
In April 2018, badminton’s Saina Nehwal capped her recovery from serious injury by winning both the women’s singles and the mixed team event at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. The 28-year-old now has an Olympic bronze medal (London 2012), two world championship medals (silver in 2015 and bronze in 2017), and three Commonwealth Games titles to her name.
Having returned to her old coach, Pullela Gopichand, after the disappointment of crashing out in the first round at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, a rejuvenated Nehwal talked to the IOC about life as she sets her sights on a triumphant Tokyo 2020.
Tell us something not many people know about you.
I am very lazy (Nehwal laughs), and I do not know how to cook at all. When I am at home I have to ask my mother to prepare tea for me.
Also, I do not like cool drinks or air conditioning. And I am afraid of turbulence on aircraft.
Thank you, that’s a lot of things! As a professional sportswoman who has to travel a lot, how do you deal with your fear of turbulence?
It’s very difficult, for instance if I am going to Delhi from Hyderabad (Nehwal’s home), I know that after one hour there will be turbulence, so I will ask my companions so many questions, like, why does turbulence happen? If I am with them, I will hold my mother or father tight. If I am alone it is more difficult.
I read about turbulence on the internet as well and discuss it with friends. I really do not like it.
When you get home from a successful tournament, what do you ask your mum to cook for you?
I like allo (potato) and paratha (flatbread) stuffed with boiled potatoes, green chillies, cumin and mint and smeared in desi ghee (a type of Indian fat, similar to butter) with curd and pickles. But it is a treat now because I have to take care of my fat levels.
These days I have to choose foods with less fat. So for lunch now I go for a plain chapati with daal, a good source of protein, salad, eggs and a seasonal vegetable. In the evening I eat a bit of chicken, from a restaurant, plus some plain chapati and a vegetable.
And what about in a restaurant, what do you normally choose?
I really love homemade food. Since I was nine years old I have been involved in badminton, and my father never took us to restaurants. I started to go maybe when I was around 15 years old, and then only in the evening once a month or before going to international tournaments.
My friendship circle is really limited to badminton. Sometimes we do go to restaurants, but then my choice remains just chicken and tandoori roti (another type of Indian flatbread) and a few bits of salad and a cappuccino, with no sugar.
You are a top badminton player, but what about other racket sports? Are you pretty good at tennis or squash?
I play tennis on the computer. I like to play matches between Serena (Williams) and (Maria) Sharapova. Otherwise, I like to swim for exercise and I like driving at high speed in my sports SUV BMW X6, whenever the opportunity comes.
For how long has badminton been a central part of your life?
My parents played badminton for a number of years; I always saw them playing. My mother was a better player and she participated in a few state-level tournaments. I was a very active child and we had a sprawling lawn in front of the house, which created a passion in me for sports.
I played all childhood sports like swimming, running, cycling, et cetera, but not badminton until I was eight years old. Then I moved about 3,000 kilometres, from north India to south India, after my father got promoted. I didn’t know the local language and I didn’t know any other kids.
Since then to now I have not looked back. I learned that I could progress through sport; that became my language.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a badminton player?
I might have been a doctor as I was a very sharp kid in my class or I might have been an agricultural scientist as my father has a PhD in agricultural sciences. He was trained at Texas A&M University, College Station, USA.
Which sports or public figures have most influenced you?
I admire sports people a lot. I like the determination, stamina and achievements of (Roger) Federer, Lin Dan, Li Xuerui, Wang Yihan and Lee Chong Wei.
I am also influenced by the skills of Viswanathan Anand, the Indian chess player, and Sachin Tendulkar, the legendary cricket player.
What are your long-term goals?
I am busy with my coach trying to make me a better player. I would like to play my fourth Olympics (at Tokyo 2020). I want to remain in badminton as long as my body allows me to as a player, and then later I may serve the sport in my country.