Growing up, it was a tradition, of sorts, for the children in the neighbourhood to meet up after school in the bylanes with their rackets and shuttlecocks to play a game of badminton. Ever so often, the achievements of badminton star Saina Nehwal—who had become a flag-bearer of women’s badminton in India—crept into conversation.
Saina became the first-ever Indian badminton player to win an Olympic medal in 2012 and became an icon for millions of fans of the game. She is also the first female Indian player to achieve the feat of ranking first in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) Tour and has 24 international titles to her name. Throughout her journey, she had the support of her family, her coaches and her husband.
So, here’s a list of the unsung heroes who helped make Saina India’s badminton superstar.
Saina’s mother, Usha Rani was a state-level badminton player in Haryana, too. As a child, she would watch her mother play. By the age of 8, she took up badminton to fulfill her mother’s dream of becoming a national level badminton player. Saina credits her success to her mother who has supported her from the very beginning.
“More than my dad, she is my main force and keeps me going with her constant motivational talks and encouragement. You need someone who you can confide in. For me, it’s my mother. I tell her everything, starting from what is making me happy or bothering me. I’ve all my emotional talks with her, I am closest to her,” Nehwal said in an interview with Hindustan Times.
Dr Harvir Singh Nehwal
Dr Harvir Singh Nehwal, Saina’s father is an agricultural scientist at the Directorate of Oilseeds Research, Hyderabad. During his studies at university, her father played badminton and was among the top players.
In 1998, after moving from Hissar, Haryana to Hyderabad, he took Saina to the Lal Bahadur Stadium in Hyderabad. It was then that Nani Prasad Rao, the badminton coach, saw her potential and convinced her father to enroll her in formal coaching. Every morning, Dr Singh would take Saina for coaching to the stadium, which was 20 kms away from their house. After her coaching sessions, he would drop her to school on the way to office. In order to purchase good quality equipment for Saina, her father would withdraw money from his savings and even his provident fund until 2002 when she first received sponsorship. Evidently, he made a number of sacrifices so that she could fulfil her dreams.
Saina was mentored by a number of coaches who helped perfect her skills over the years.
Her first coach was Nani Prasad Rao who had first spotted her talent at the Lal Bahadur Stadium. At the time, he was the badminton coach of the Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh (SAAP). He selected Saina from a group of 250-odd kids. He coached her through her formative years when she was being recognised in the state-level badminton circuit. When he was transferred from Hyderabad to Vijayawada he was keen for her to join the academy there but her parents declined.
It was then that Saina came under the wing of S M Arif, the chief coach at the stadium. He was awarded the Dronacharya Award and known for training stalwarts such as Pullela Gopichand, Chetan Anand and Jwala Gutta.
Arif had realised Saina was better than the competition in the junior circuit and encouraged her to play in a senior tournament to get exposure to tougher competition.
“Saina was prepared to follow whatever she was told. She would never shy away from hard work and was always ready to push herself. She literally pushed her body to the limits while training. That is when I realised that she is a special talent and will go a long way,” Arif said in an interview.
She trained under Arif till 2005 when he retired as coach from the Sports Authority of India. She was then trained by Pullela Gopichand, who has been trained by Arif as well. Her training was rigorous under Gopichand and in 2012 she won the bronze medal in the London Olympics.
In 2014, she began training with Vimal Kumar, who played an instrumental role in her training after the Olympics. Under his coaching, Saina went on to become ranking first in women’s singles and win a silver at the World Championship in 2015.
Parupalli Kashyap, Saina’s husband, has carved out a name for himself in badminton. He first rose to prominence when he won a bronze at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. In 2012, he then became the first male shuttler from India to reach the quarter-final at the London Olympics.
He and Saina knew each other from a camp in 1997 and in 2002 they began training together in Hyderabad. Soon, Kashyap began training Saina and has stood by her side ever since. In 2018, Saina went on to win the bronze at the Asian Games under her husband’s coaching.
“When I was training her and sitting for her matches, I also wanted to play the tournament. That helped me come back. I was motivated to train again and everything fell in place. Coaching her helped me and it helped her,” Kashyap said in an interview.
Saina’s journey in becoming one of the top Indian women badminton players has been a result of those who influenced her at different stages of her life. It is with their encouragement and help that she has gone on to win not only trophies and medals but also millions of hearts.