Sporting rivalries are not just about two players or teams vying for the prize in a competition. There’s much more significance to the word a rivalry in the field of sports than what meets the eye.
It’s not just about merely outdoing the other and being the first to the finish line. In a battle for excellence, it’s about finding that zeal and burning desire to produce your best possible version. It’s about embracing the burgeoning pressure and channelizing it into an adrenaline rush.
In a constant quest for success, it is about fighting against yourself so that you can soar to colossal heights.
Former Manchester United star Eric Cantona had once remarked on United’s rivalry with Leeds: The pressure people put on themselves and the rivalry between the teams is much more marked. And I think that’s a good thing. As long as that rivalry remains within the spirit of competition, it can only spur everyone on.
Cantona hit the bull’s eyes with those valuable words, it can only spur everyone on.
A rivalry can help a player grow through that fierce determination to prove himself against his rival, as much as it pushes the sport forward.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have orchestrated enough epics that will continue to be talked about for years to come. But that hasn’t stopped either of them to try to get even better. Well past 30, the Swiss has sharpened his tools and refurbished his backhand only to produce a more lethal version of himself on the tennis courts.
Similarly, having reigned in the top tier of women’s singles badminton for more than a decade, Saina Nehwal should ideally be content with what she has already achieved. With a resume embellished with an Olympic bronze medal, the World No. 1 ranking, 10 Superseries titles among others, does she really have anything more to chase?
She has made a dent in the Chinese stranglehold of badminton, she has made India a constant presence in the world’s top 10. She has single-handedly carried Indian women’s singles to where it never dared to reach.
She has been the trailblazer, the pathbreaker and the icon, who has made little girls dream. She has been the one who has done it all.
Yet, nine years after tasting Superseries glory for the first time, it is once again Saina Nehwal, who, at the age of 28, was crowned the Commonwealth Games champion at Gold Coast.
Has her hunger never waned? Has her confidence never ebbed?
A mind full of doubts
Yes, there have been times when the Hisar-born shuttler’s mind was enshrouded with doubts and apprehensions. The knee surgery following her early exit from the Rio Olympics in 2016 was a tough one for her to deal with.
It is okay, many people will think my career will end and I won’t come back. I also think somewhere deep in my heart that maybe it is the end of my career, so let’s see how it is. Maybe, you never know, she had told ESPN.in less than two months after undergoing the surgery.
At that point of time, she didn’t know what the future held. It was a long, winding road that lay in front of her with no certainty of where it will lead to. She was still hobbling from the after effects of the surgery and had limited mobility.
She missed the rigours of the competition too much and committed the mistake of rushing back to tournaments. Early losses gave fodder to the detractors to bay for her blood.
Saina’s slide happened to coincide with PV Sindhu’s rise into an Olympic medallist and a far more competent and consistent player than before. As tributes poured in from all quarters for Sindhu, the encomiums almost drowned out the voices of the Saina worshippers. The once-darling of Indian badminton could hardly get any attention, except from her dedicated fan brigade.
The Rio Olympic silver medallist was the newest and brightest star on the horizon and Saina was resigned to training quietly in a corner as the clamours for her retirement grew louder by the day.
And that only fired up the fighter in Nehwal. She yearned to get back to where she belonged.
Saina had forever been a master of venting out her anger in practice sessions, as she had herself admitted way back in 2014 right after a barren run in the 2013 season.
Nobody better than her knows how to get back at one’s critics. She returned in 2014 with a bang by triumphing in two Superseries events, besides the India Grand Prix Gold at home, where she got the better of a young Sindhu in the final.
It was pretty much a repeat of the same scenario in 2017. Nehwal had to prove herself yet again — prove her worth against a highly talented rival, prove to the world that she has still got it, and, most importantly, prove to herself that she still has that same conviction.
It wasn’t as easy as it was in 2014. After all, years have progressed since then and Saina has aged. The recovery and getting back to the top couldn’t be expected to be as fast as it was four years ago.
Saina stayed patient and focussed on the basics — fitness, and, at the same time, limbered up for the big battle ahead. Sindhu’s meteoric rise into the top three of the world and her wresting away the country’s numero uno position from Saina only infused the older shuttle queen with a spirit and an obstinacy never before seen.
When Sindhu was coming up the ranks a couple of years back, Nehwal had told the Hindustan Times, Rivalry will be there. After all everyone, at the end, is your opponent. Just because she’s Indian doesn’t mean I won’t try to win.
And so, having been sidelined, every day she willed herself to get that win. Every day, she took one tiny step towards proving that she was not to be written off so easily.
Saina had the skills, she only needed to get fitter and faster. A wiser Saina selected her tournaments well in 2017 while working religiously with Heath Matthews, head of sports medicine at Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital in Mumbai.
Effect of the World Championships medal
It all culminated into that bronze medal at the World Championships. The gravity of that outcome was profound.
It assured her that she was moving in the right direction. The medal motivated her to take the next step in the road to recovery. With her body answering her back favourably, she was now courageous enough to take all challenges head-on.
She took the bold decision to move back under the wings of Pullela Gopichand, whom she had acrimoniously split from in 2014 to train under Vimal Kumar in Bangalore. It was alleged at that time that Saina felt insecure at the upcoming Sindhu getting more personal attention from Gopichand when she felt she deserved a lot more time.
Three years later, the situation obviously hadn’t changed much. Sindhu was the bigger star by dint of her consistent results, yet Nehwal made the U-turn to the Gopichand Academy, knowing fully well that she was to get no special privilege.
Needless to say that a lot of introspection must have gone behind taking this step and with it, surely was a lot of desperation to spruce up her game and get back her world-beater self.
Saina was not to be intimidated this time. She would rather be coached by Gopichand and Mulyo Handoyo — the same set of mentors, who was tutoring Sindhu. She would rather stand up to the test than run away from it.
Three years since bidding farewell to the academy, the prodigal daughter that returned was a far more mature and sagacious one.
To claw her way back to the top pedestal, that she had once relinquished, she knew she had to selflessly devote her time to the man, who always knew her the best. Only Gopichand would be able to give her the wings to fly, she believed that deep in her heart.
Start of Saina vs Sindhu classics
And the results were for all to see. In two months, Nehwal and Sindhu played a mesmerizing final at the National Championships that enraptured the badminton aficionados present at Nagpur. Nehwal showed the positive effects of all the hard work she had been doing with Gopichand as she glided beautifully on the court, kept attacking the Sindhu backhand at will and controlled the net masterfully.
The younger, but taller Indian could not even snatch a game off the former World No. 1. It was the first step to restoration of pride for the London Olympic medallist.
They locked horns again, just two months later, in Indonesia. There was no change in the final outcome. Saina won the contest handily, in straight games, yet again. This was yet another reassurance that she needed.
It was all a preparation for the ultimate face-off — at Gold Coast. Saina was careful not to overdo things in the path leading to Australia. After Indonesia, she participated in just two more tournaments, in an attempt to preserve her fitness for the Commonwealth Games, and regularly worked with Pedra Christopher of Kokilaben Hospital, Mumbai to be in the best possible shape.
She knew how much depended on her performance there. All these months she had been waiting for this one priceless opportunity to silence the naysayers.
And so she did with great panache! At the age of 28, Saina carried the responsibility of the entire nation in both the team event and the singles, yet that failed to wear her out. Her passion and determination were strong enough to overpower any force trying to pull her down.
The ultimate CWG face-off
What ensued in the singles final at the Carrara Stadium that morning was a display of the highest order from the 2010 Commonwealth Games champion. She channelized all that pent-up rage, emotion, intensity into this one match. Storming out of the blocks with brutal aggression, she showed she was a woman on a mission.
This was Saina with a purpose and that is when she becomes highly intimidating for anyone across the net.
The speed and terrific movement enabled her to bring an element of surprise as she kept varying the placement of the shuttle, keeping Sindhu guessing forever. This was a vindication of all the hours she had put into getting herself fitter and faster, something she was lacking in even a few months back.
Nothing, absolutely nothing could deter Saina as she set her sights on laying her hands on the prized gold medal again. Sindhu’s early lead in the second game could not throw her off nor could that fabulous 64-shot rally deep into the second game, by the end of which, the former top-ranked shuttler doubled over and was panting heavily.
When she finally accomplished what she had been hunting for, her reaction said it all. It was sheer joy mixed with relief at having achieved a goal that had looked out of bounds for her some months ago.
It was absolutely evident how much the win meant to her. She had not just been battling Sindhu — her heir apparent — on the court, but everybody else, who questioned her abilities, as well.
With this one win, she quelled those forces and refuted those claims that her time was over.
I went into the final against Sindhu to win it for my honour. God helped, and I played with confidence and with all my ability, Nehwal later told The Week, which clearly explains why she was so pumped up.
There could not be a better way and a better place for her to do it. With the entire nation waiting with bated breath to see who trumps the other in the all-Indian final, Nehwal’s win over her higher-ranked rival certainly proves she has got as much fight left in her as any other youngster.
In many ways, Sindhu is the one she should be indebted to for reigniting the spark in her. By taking the spotlight away from her, Sindhu had pushed the older Indian to raise her game further.
At an age when so many of her peers have hung up their racquets, could Saina have displayed so much ferocity on the court, without a rival on the scene, especially after coming back from a career-threatening injury?
And that is why, their rivalry is so special. In pursuit of securing the country’s top position, they have helped one clear winner emerge from their duels each and every time they have crossed swords and that is Indian badminton.