South Asia

Saina Nehwal: India's badminton star and 'new woman'

Saina Nehwal
Image caption Saina Nehwal is eyeing August's world badminton championship in Paris

As India's badminton world number two Saina Nehwal is awarded the country's highest sporting honour, the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award, sports writer Suresh Menon says the young star is a symbol of the new Indian woman.

When Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar started breaking records or shooter Abhinav Bindra won India's first individual gold at the Olympics, no-one asked them about their Bollywood ambitions.

It is an absurd question to ask a serious athlete.

Yet it seems the obvious one to ask India's sportswomen. It was asked of the tennis star Sania Mirza. And, after her third successive Grand Prix title, of badminton player Saina Nehwal, the number two-ranked player in the world.

The two women from Hyderabad (although neither was born there) have to answer such questions in a country that has produced fewer than half a dozen world-class sportswomen.

Liberating

Mirza, 23, and Nehwal, 20, have to demonstrate to a sceptical India the liberating power of sport, its ability to reward hard work and its power to emancipate women.

Already Mirza has gone from being a personality to becoming a brand. It is difficult to see her breaking into the world's top 10 now.

So the mantle has passed to Saina Nehwal, the one with fewer distractions and, importantly, the greater likelihood of becoming the number one in her sport.

Nehwal - whom Indian President Pratibha Patil will later this month present with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award, the country's highest sporting honour - has become a household name.

She is one of India's six brand ambassadors for the Commonwealth Games, which Delhi will host in October.

"I hope to win [August's] world championship in Paris," Nehwal says, her tone matter-of-fact, her vision unclouded by the possibility of emerging as the greatest Indian female athlete ever.

That position is currently occupied by PT Usha, the sprinter and hurdler who narrowly missed a medal at the Olympics but emerged as the continent's best.

Girl next door

Indians find it difficult to understand the female athlete, to work out that their greatest ambitions may not lie in getting married or dancing around trees singing meaningless songs.

Image caption Nehwal allows her coach the total freedom to shape her career

They find such things as single-minded focus, ambition, physical training and personal sacrifices in the quest for sporting honours unbecoming of a woman.

"Indian sportswomen face a lot more challenges because of the nature of our society," says Prakash Padukone, who first put India on the world badminton map by winning the All England title in 1980.

In individual sport, the Indians who have made it big have only their parents to thank.

The Krishnans and Amritraj brothers in tennis, Padukone himself, world chess champion Vishwanathan Anand, Olympic gold shooter Bindra and a host of others made the grade thanks to the personal and financial sacrifices of their parents.

Nehwal, too, is in this tradition.

Her father, an entomologist, has refused promotions that might require leaving Hyderabad and thus endangering the training Saina receives under Pullela Gopichand, another All England winner.

Nehwal - and this is where she is different from some of the others - allows her coach the total freedom to shape her career.

Sacrifice

Nehwal, who first showed promise while winning the junior title at the Czech Open in 2003, has won three titles in a row, in Chennai, Singapore and Indonesia.

Image caption Nehwal is set to cross the $2m mark per endorsement, say brand experts

"Saina is exceptional," says Padukone, "she is technically sound, physically fit and mentally strong."

It is a range of attributes that has seldom come together in one Indian sportswoman.

After her run at the 1984 Olympics, it took Edwin Moses, the then top male hurdler in the world, to point out to Usha that the number of strides she took between hurdles was wrong.

Nehwal has the advantages of modern coaching methods, the intelligence to protect her ranking and the will to push herself to the top.

In a sporting system which increasingly decides the worth of a player by her market value, Nehwal is set to cross the 10m rupee ($2m; £1.4m) mark per endorsement, if brand gurus are to be believed.

If she is impressed by this, Nehwal shows no sign. She has sacrificed too many things over too many years to settle at a level lower than the one she set out to achieve.

"Why does everyone get excited about a girl who plays a sport only a few countries in the world are interested in? Tennis is so much bigger," Sania Mirza once said about the sportswoman she is often compared unfavourably with.

The answer is simple.

Indians might find it difficult to understand a focused sportswoman, but they can appreciate one.

Nehwal is the girl next door who is the embodiment of the cliche that when talent combines with hard work, the sky is the limit.

Her remarkable self-awareness makes her the symbol of the new Indian woman - independent and determined to make it on her own terms.

Just out of her teens, the badminton star is already lighting the path for women around the country - and not just sportswomen.

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