I will speak for myself here, and I will speak as a woman who has grown up watching you. Popular belief back when I first showed the slightest signs of interest in sports was that this was not a domain that girls should be associating themselves with. I lacked a female sporting idol I could relate to- someone who was not double my age, someone who could do my talking for me. I being a girl had a point to prove. In 2006, you proved it for me.
You were 16- a couple of years older to me. At 16, you became the youngest Asian to win a 4-star BWF tournament. At 16, you brought back a medal from the Junior Championships. Here I was wondering whether stereotypes would ever be broken and your racquet proved more effective than anything I had ever said or done till date. You gave me a hero. Silently, in your way, you assured a lot of girls like me that things would change when it came to perceptions about female sportspersons. You would make sure of that.
Every once in a while there comes an athlete whose legend grows so big that you cannot remember a time when they were not playing. Alternatively, you do not want to think about a time when they will no longer be actively competing. You are that athlete for Badminton. Very simply put, you came, you saw, and you conquered. There was a time when no one believed that India would ever emerge as a superpower in the sport of Badminton.
Sure, we have had legends before you, their towering statures looming as long as they played the sport. But they have been rare and intermittent in number. For 12 years, you have kept Badminton alive in the minds of Indians. You never let them forget you. You consistently made headlines; you stood up as an idol for an entire generation of Indian girls who probably never knew about the option of choosing sports as their destiny. You did it all, and you did it at an exponentially young age.
In India, we have a funny way of hero-worshipping athletes. We may have celebrated you with great pomp and regard when you became the first Indian woman to win an individual Olympic medal but it took us just a second to criticise you when you were going through a rough patch. You see, we had become so used to you consistently winning, we refused to accept a scenario where Saina Nehwal would not win a medal. We turned to criticism; we abandoned you. You had a rough, inconsistent year in 2013 and most of us did not take longer than a second to write you off. There was a period when you had a series of losses against lower ranked players, your ranking slipped. People started giving up on you. They forgot that you had never given up on them.
You are 28 now. You have seen the demographics of Indian Badminton change since you first stepped into it. You have seen players come and go. Through it all, you silently fought through. You gave India the opportunity to boast about you when you climbed up to the World No one rank in 2015. Every single time you have been underestimated, you have come back stronger.
You proved a point, Saina. You taught us that a single person is often enough to inspire an entire generation. You showed us the virtue of patience. Skill is not the only thing that makes a sportsperson. Determination, strength and a positive attitude build up champions. And who has personified that as consistently as you?
An entire nation stood tall and proud with you through your various achievements. And today, you have given them another opportunity to do that. Indian Badminton is where it’s at because of you.
It makes me, personally, very glad to see you’re not going away from the court any time soon. You have left an indelible impression on me. I grew into an adult, but somewhere, I remain that 10-year old girl who is just immensely proud of her idol. When you assured yourself of an Asian Games medal today, the only major one you were missing, the relief on your face made me smile. It has been an hour since that moment, and I still haven’t stopped smiling.
When the country needed a hero, Saina, you have always stepped up to the task. You are Indian Badminton. Without you, none of the rest would have been possible.
History remembers the winners. I have been lucky enough to have watched you play. If I ever come across a similarly lost 10-year old, I’ll tell her your story. I’ll let her know how the ripples of your legacy combined to form the strong wave that we see in Indian Badminton today.
I’ll tell her to watch out for you. Because I know you’ll always be there for Indian Badminton.