The journey of a thousand miles, begins with a single step. For little Saina, whose badminton journey began almost by accident in December 1998, today, 17 years later, the world number one title is in her kitty. She set out with her father to Lal Bahadur indoor stadium in Hyderabad who had gone there to seek permission to organise a badminton tournament for scientists at his Agricultural institute. Saina started playing with the racquets kept on the side and something about the way she held the racquet, caught the eye of badminton coach, the late PSS Nani Prasad Rao. Every since that day, there has been no looking back. Probably, it helped Saina that both her parents were badminton players in their younger days. Her mother, Usha Rani was also an exceptionally talented badminton player and is remembered for the flicks of how she would move her wrist while playing the game.
Like most sportspersons, Saina too struggled to balance her study and game time. Although she experienced her share of ups and downs throughout her journey, she made a mark in everything she laid hands on. Saina Nehwal is the first Indian to win a medal in Badminton at the Olympics. She achieved this feat by winning the Bronze medal at the London Olympics 2012 on August 4, 2012. She is also the first Indian to win the World Junior Badminton Championships and the first Indian to win a Super Series tournament, by clinching the Indonesia Open on June 21, 2009. On March 7, 2015, she became the first Indian woman to reach the finals of the All England Open Badminton Championship where she lost to Carolina Marin in three sets. She won the prestigious Arjuna award in 2009, the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award for the year 2009–2010 and she bagged the Padma Shri in 2010.
Saina has been on a roll ever since her victory at the China Open. On her big game on March 29, at the India Open Super Series badminton tournament in New Delhi, Saina, the bronze medalist at the London Olympics, played like a champion to get the better off of the former world champion Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand 21-16 21-14 in a relatively one-sided affair.
But up first Saina, coming into the match with a 5-3 overall advantage over her rival, was not tested much as the Indian was prepared for Intanon’s game. Saina encountered her rival with her better movements and powerful and accurate smashes to eventually wrest her second title of the season. Saina used her powerful smashes and rode on her opponent’s unforced errors to lead 11-5 early on. After the break, Intanon gave a glimpse of her superb game and narrowed the gap to 10-12. Saina gained a massive nine game point advantage at 20-12. Intanon saved four game points before Saina sealed the opening game.
The change of side didn’t alter anything as Saina once again rushed to a 5-0 lead. Intanon gained a few points but Saina managed to zoom into the break with a 11-6 lead. After the break, Intanon caught Saina a few times at the forecourt but those were few as Saina raced to a 17-11 lead. Intanon reduced the gap to 18-14 but the Thai girl once again hit out twice to first give Saina the match point and then the title.
Saina took just four years to move from the 86th rank into the top ten. And five years to make that tougher journey from world number eight (in January 2010) to world number 1 in March 2015. Today she stands on the Mt Everest of world badminton rankings. The official rankings will be out on April 2 and meanwhile, Badminton Association of India President Akhilesh Das Gupta has announced Rs 10 lakhs for Saina for becoming the world No. 1 shuttler, while awarded Srikanth Rs 5 lakhs for winning the men’s singles title.
Saina is now looking to win Gold at Rio Olympics and with the latest Australian Open Title win, everyone has got their hope high!