There’s this thing about sport in India. You very rarely hear of an Indian team (other than our cash-rich cricket team) winning a tournament or championship somewhere. Most of us don’t remember when the hockey team last won an international tournament. And we don’t even have a football team to talk about. Indian sport has always been about individuals. People who couldn’t keep their talents hiding against all odds (the odds being the system). And people who had enough money to override the system (Abhinav Bindra?). Be it Vishwanathan Anand, Abhinav Bindra or Leander Paes; P T Usha or Anju Bobby George, it is the individual who has made a mark. Even in team games it is the Sachin Tendulkar or M S Dhoni who grabs the lime-light. Or the Dhanraj Pillay or Baichung Bhutia.
It is almost always better not to talk about women’s sport in India. Especially as India is a country where women are not even allowed to be born, let alone grow up to be sports-persons. But in spite of such hostilities and many more others, we do have women who have made it big in sports. Women who have battled against adversity to prove their worth. Like Sania Mirza and Saina Nehwal.
That their maiden names are only slightly different permutations of the same set of letters is perhaps a coincidence, just like their games are both played with rackets, only that one is played with a ball and the other with a shuttle-cock. Or like both of them hail from Hyderabad (Sania was born in Mumbai and Saina in Haryana, but both have been living in Hyderabad since).
Sania Mirza, until recently, was the media’s baby (perhaps ‘babe’ would be more appropriate). The tennis star reached the peak of her career in 2007 and at that time, there were very few days she wasn’t featured on the sports pages of dailies. And she deserved most of it, except perhaps the needless controversies pertaining to her on-court attire and her religion. Sania Mirza is the highest ranked tennis player ever from India with a career best ranking of 27 in singles and 18 in doubles. She has many other firsts to her credit, being the first Indian woman to be seeded in a Grand Slam tournament, to reach the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament (at the 2005 U S Open) and to win a Grand Slam title (the mixed doubles at the 2009 Australian Open with Mahesh Bhupathi).
Besides her achievements in sports, it would not be wrong to say that she’s the first real glam-girl of Indian sport. She was almost made to be the Anna Kournikova of India. Perhaps it is because women’s tennis is always associated with glamor and it was inevitable that she, like most female tennis stars, be known more for her sexiness rather than her playing skills. But what got lost amid all the glitter and glamor was her game. The hype that the media gave her certainly increased people’s expectations (and perhaps even her own) beyond her actual abilities. She was regularly plagued by injuries in 2008 which almost led to her oblivion from the tennis scene. Though she picked up her game in 2009, winning the doubles at the Australian open with Mahesh Bhupathi, she did not live up to the sky-high expectations. And the media did not spare her personal life as well, with stories of her initial engagement to childhood acquaintance Sohrab Mirza, break-up and her subsequent marriage to Pakistan cricketer Shoaib Malik running for days together on news channels. It can be strongly contended that she got more media coverage at these times than for any of her achievements in tennis. Though Sania has said she’ll continue playing for India after her marriage, one strongly doubts if she will reach anywhere near her past glory.
Saina Nehwal, on the other hand, has got less of media attention, at least until now. It maybe because badminton is not as glamorous a game as tennis is. And maybe because it’s not the first time an Indian woman achieved something in badminton; Aparna Popat being the other familiar name. Saina’s achievements in badminton, though, are no less than Sania’s in tennis and there is much reason to believe that her best is yet to come. Her recent hat-trick triumph at the Indian Open, Singapore Open and Indonesian Open Super Series – three international titles in three weeks – is something no Indian has achieved so far. That all this came after much hardship only adds more shine to it.
Hailing from a middle class family, her father faced a lot of financial difficulties, spending a considerable chunk of his savings on training her from the age of eight. In the beginning, she used to train from 6 am in the morning at the Lal Bahadur Stadium in Hyderabad, which was at that time 20 km from her home. Her father used to take her early in the morning on his scooter for her training and after that, to school. No wonder then, that she used to sleep off on the back seat often! Her family subsequently moved nearer to the stadium in 1999. However, her training cost did not reduce as they had to keep buying shuttles, rackets, shoes and the lot regularly. In 2002, Yonex Sunrise sports offered to sponsor her kit, which according to her father, was a “big relief“. Subsequently, she received support from the BPCL late in 2004 and later, was spotted by the Mittal Champions Trust in December, 2005. Add to this the fact that till 2003, what she got from the Sports Authority of India (SAI) was Rs 600 per month, which was raised to Rs 2500 that year.
Saina Nehwal has not yet become a page-3 personality like Sania Mirza did. Though it is a bit too early to predict, it is doubtful if she ever will. Quite opposed to Sania’s “oomph factor”, what Saina has is an innocent charm that is very much likable. Sports-persons are best when they remain focused on the game rather than the fame. Saina, until now has shown no signs of compromising the former for the latter. One fervently hopes, she doesn’t think otherwise, when more spectacular achievements come her way.
Prakash Padukone has maintained that Saina is the best woman badminton player that India has ever produced. This humble writer here, who somehow fortunately knows how to hold the racket and put in a few shots and who has watched quite a few games of Saina Nehwal on TV, agrees completely and earnestly prays that she will win many more championships for her country and for its women. Way to go girl!