Saina Nehwal, who recently became the first Indian shuttler to win an Olympic medal, tells G Krishnan more corporate houses must come forward and support sportspersons.
You’ve been pretty busy after the Olympics. Tell us about your meetings with the president, prime minister and others.
It’s been good. A lot of sportspersons (besides cricketers) have been doing well of late. So this kind of recognition was necessary. We won six medals (at one Olympics) for the first time and the reception we got in New Delhi was superb. We are improving by the day and everyone is following our progress like never before. The response has been amazing. I thank the sports ministry. All of this will inspire youngsters. They’ll say, ‘if these guys can win Olympic medals, we, too can’. But a lot more needs to be done. We need a lot of corporate houses to sponsor and support athletes. A sportsperson must feel secure. Many oil companies support us; we have jobs thanks to them. I am thankful to Bharat Petroleum for that. I just need to concentrate on badminton. All these things matter for a sportsperson.
How important is it for a sportsperson to be educated?
Education is very important. It is a part of everyday life. One can’t ignore studies and focus on sports and games. If you think like that, then you are in trouble. Maybe you can do that in cricket, but other sportspersons are not so lucky. We see China winning 30 (gold) medals and the USA winning 40. If we Indians want to achieve something like that, then we need to invest heavily. The government is supporting us, but we also need more and more corporate houses to come forward. Once an aspiring sportsperson gets a well-paying job, then his future will be secure. Also, his/her parents will not have to worry.
How much importance did you attach to studies?
I gave up studies after Std XII. My aim was to win medals, so I gave up. There are so many people in India who discontinue studies and concentrate on sports. I am the only shuttler who’s won an Olympic medal. I want to win more medals in. The fact that I did not complete my studies doesn’t really bother me.
How has life changed after London?
Everything is falling in place. I was already a celebrity, but now I’ve become like a film star. Everyone wants to meet me. Everyone wants my autograph. I am thankful to everyone who has made me a champion. I want to win more medals for the country and I hope people will continue to support me.
Do you make a conscious effort to remain grounded?
If you are in good company, you will never develop (what we call) ‘attitude’. They say success gets to your head, but your basic nature never changes. There has to be someone to advice you and tell you ‘this is not the way to behave’. My father is very down to earth and he always tells me to remain grounded. He tells me to be normal, train harder and win more tournaments so that I can achieve more success. I listen to him and my well-wishers. I am very cool and relaxed and I don’t want to change.
You must also be aware that you are a role model to a lot of youngsters, especially girls.
I have been setting an example for many years now and I am used to it. I have not become a role model overnight. Most of the girls want to do what I am doing; it’s a good thing and I’m proud of that. I have to maintain my status of a champion so I have to keep working hard. My first priority is my game. And that’s why I never get carried away.
Did you get to see the others in action at the Games?
I didn’t because I was not staying at the Games Village. The badminton arena was a two-hour drive from the Village, so I stayed at a hotel next to the Wembley Arena. I’d stayed at the Village in Beijing. It was fun. This time, my focus was on winning. I wanted to achieve something.
Have you already set sights on Rio 2016?
Rio is too far away. My focus is on the next tournament.
Finally, in the bronze medal play-off, your opponent Wang Xin retired hurt. Would you have preferred to win it by playing a full match?
I didn’t do that (retire). It happened to her. Whether I prefer to win the medal that way doesn’t make any sense. It just happened, she fell and got injured. Those who know my game know how I win matches, they know how difficult it is to win matches and that I never give up that easily. People say that she fell down, it was not just her day. These things happen in sport, many leave the game like that, it is normal. Of course, one of us would have won the medal. I was trying to win the medal, she was also trying to win the medal. It was not just her day.