Twenty-five year old Saina Nehwal is one of the most iconic athletes in India.
Nehwal became the first Indian to reach the top of the women’s singles badminton rankings earlier this year.
Prior to that, she became a pioneer for India, flying the national flag high before anyone.
She is first and only Indian badminton player to win an Olympic medal, first to win Commonwealth Gold in women’s singles, first to win the World Junior and Commonwealth Youth titles, and was also the first Indian to win the Indian Super series title.
Olympic Games: Bronze
Asian Championships: Bronze
Asian Games: Bronze
Commonwealth Games: Gold, Silver, Bronze
All this in addition to the record 16 international singles titles at the Super Series and Grand Prix Gold level. This resulted in her being called the “darling daughter of India” by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Nehwal’s achievements, her focus on winning for India and her simplicity has endeared her to millions of sports fans, not only in India but abroad as well.
Nehwal did suffer hiccups along the way, most notably after her birth to Usha Rani and Harvir Singh Nehwal in the state of Haryana when her grandmother refused to see her for a month.
Discrimination against a girl child was rife in Haryana. Today, Nehwal is the brand ambassador for the girl child campaign in India.
Badminton was in Nehwal’s genes – her mother was a badminton player as well, representing Haryana.
“I used to be taken in a pram to the local club where my mother would play,” she told Al Jazeera. “That was my first exposure to the sport.”
As there was no coaching facility available for children, her father thought of making Nehwal take up Karate. She loved it and went as far as getting a brown belt before Harvir was transferred to Hyderabad.
By then, Hyderabad had become a hub for badminton following local player Pullella Gopi Chand’s rise that culminated in him winning the national title and then the All England crown in 2001.
“Initially, my parents got me to take up badminton in Hyderabad as we had moved from a Hindi speaking area to a Telugu speaking state. They wanted me to be physically fit but my mother wanted me to become a national champion and win an Olympic medal.
“Luck favoured me as I landed up with my coach Arif who groomed me and then I joined Chand’s academy.”
However, financing her badminton activities was a major problem which forced Nehwal’s parents to sacrifice a lot.
Her expenses would range from INR 25,000 INR 60,000 (now $360-942) per month.
“I had to borrow money from my friends, colleagues and relatives,” Nehwal’s father said.
“I had a fixed income as a government servant. I couldn’t afford to buy her top of the line equipment. Coach’s fee and the local travelling expenses were also a problem as we stayed around 30km from the stadium.”
Wins brought cash
Nehwal’s sister was studying pharmacy and that was an added expense.
“Another huge expense was when Nehwal and either me or her mother travelled outside Hyderabad for matches. Each trip would cost up to INR 20,000 ($360).
Problems started easing out as Nehwal started winning national tournaments and sponsors started taking interest.
On the international circuit, she first achieved the number-two ranking in December 2010 but was unable to sustain that.
It took me my whole life to make what she makes in a year
She attained that ranking once again in July 2013 after beating Chinese Olympic gold medalist and world champion Li Xuerei twice, former All England champion Wang Shi Xian six times, former world champion Wang Yihan twice and former All England Champion from Tine Baun five times.
The year 2015 brought her the ranking she had dreamt of and been working so hard for.
The success also brought her riches beyond her dreams. She drives an Audi, a BMW and owns real estate.
“It took me my whole life to make what she makes in a year,” her father commented.
At one stage, Nehwal was the highest paid badminton star in the world in terms of endorsement deals worth more than a million dollars annually, completing the journey from early struggles to global fame.
“I had a problem telling her to stop after a hard day’s work,” recalls her coach Arif.
“She always wanted more time on the court. I used to tell her that rest was also important but she wasn’t willing to listen to me.”
Nehwal is now working towards winning that Olympic gold that has eluded her.
Her success has taken the sport to great heights in India with thousands following her onto the court, especially young girls.
This, according to the star, is her biggest win.