Saina Nehwal Targets Golden Glow As Clock Ticks Down to Rio

One eye on her second Olympics’ medal, a look at Saina Nehwal’s preparations for the Rio games.

Published
Sports
3 min read
Saina Nehwal with her Bronze medal from the 2012 London Olympics. (Photo: Reuters)

Elite sportspersons obsess. It fuels drive. And ambition.

On a warmish Bangalore afternoon a few months back, I watched Saina Nehwal drip buckets of sweat at what frankly was a ridiculous training session. One against four on the practice court, Saina chased down shuttle after shuttle in an incessant torrent of practice.

Play shot. Scramble. Retrieve. Smash. Repeat.

Finally, exhausted and spent she lay down for a rub down from her trainer to relax the aching muscles. I sat beside for a chat. We talked about goals, targets and the like.

“Somehow nothing else has ever meant as much to me as the Olympics,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “An Olympic medal is an obsession.”

She already has one of course - the bronze captured at the London games in 2012. Now, with less than 100 days to go for Rio, Saina is building steadily and surely towards adding another to her collection.

Perhaps of a different colour?

Saina Nehwal with coach Vimal Kumar at a training session in Bangalore in July 2015. (Photo: IANS)
Saina Nehwal with coach Vimal Kumar at a training session in Bangalore in July 2015. (Photo: IANS)

Across The Net

The battle for women’s badminton medals at the Rio games will be among the most intensely contested at the games across disciplines. Saina will arrive well aware that one among seven to eight players in the field can potentially trip her up on the day, such is the ferocity of competition and the depth of talent on the circuit.

There is barely a frontrunner, leave alone a favourite.

Saina’s straight games defeat in the semifinals at the Badminton Asia Championships on Saturday to Yihan Wang was a grim reminder of the enormity of the challenge that confronts her. Yet, in her camp, there is a quiet confidence. Key boxes are being ticked off with each passing week. Saina is healthy, upbeat and most importantly, in the words of her dedicated coach Vimal Kumar, “Pain free.”

Saina Nehwal with coach Vimal Kumar at a training session in Bangalore in July 2015. (Photo: IANS)
Saina Nehwal with coach Vimal Kumar at a training session in Bangalore in July 2015. (Photo: IANS)

Returning From Injuries

Since returning to the circuit in March after an enforced three-month break to recuperate from a gnawing ankle injury, Saina has reached the semifinals at four of the five events she has played in. Having to defend points from a stellar run at the same stage last year, her ranking has slipped from two to eight. However, with a spot for Rio assured, where she sits on the computer doesn’t concern Vimal in the least. His focus is on his ward’s health and vigour.

“The difference between the top players is marginal,” Vimal says. “Our focus has been for her to play with a free mind and enjoy herself.”

It was this “enjoyment” that went missing from Saina’s game in the second half of last year. The ankle first flared up at the World Championships in August where she won silver, going down Spain’s Carolina Marin in the final. The decision to continue playing tournaments despite the pain backfired and the season ended with a whimper with an early exit from the Superseries Finals in Dubai in December.

Saina Nehwal receives her Padma Bhushan Award from President Pranab Mukherjee at Rashtrapati Bhavan on March 28, 2016. (Photo: IANS/PIB)
Saina Nehwal receives her Padma Bhushan Award from President Pranab Mukherjee at Rashtrapati Bhavan on March 28, 2016. (Photo: IANS/PIB)

Target Rio

Now, rested and healed, the verve is returning to Saina’s game, though she is yet to win a title since returning to competitive action. Nine-time national champion Aparna Popat believes that as her fitness levels continue to improve, Saina will be less hesitant and crucially for a player with her style of play, reach the shuttle just a bit quicker in matches.

She knows how to play in all situations, it is just a case of getting fitter. Her experience is a big advantage.
Aparna Popat on Saina Nehwal

So, on the home stretch of an obsessive quest, one of India’s premier medal prospects at the Olympics is just where she wants to be. Over the next few weeks, she will assiduously build strength on the practice court and appear in a smattering of tournaments. Never losing sight of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

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