Rio 2016: Saina Nehwal, India’s golden hope

As the sport goes from strength to strength in India, Saina Nehwal is aiming to boost its profile even further by becoming her country’s first badminton Olympic gold medallist in Rio Words: Gruffudd Owen

Widely regarded as its second-most popular sport behind cricket, India has produced a commendable number of successful badminton players in past decades, but it is one of the current crop – superstar shuttler Saina Nehwal – who has arguably made the most pronounced impact of all on the sport’s burgeoning popularity.

Boasting 22 individual senior titles to her name, including Commonwealth gold on home turf in New Delhi in 2010, Nehwal is one of the sport’s most formidable opponents, rising to the summit of the world rankings as recently as last year under the guidance of her coach Vimal Kumar – himself a successful former Indian badminton player.

Nehwal’s most pressing concern, however, is preparing for her shot at gold in Rio de Janeiro. Her motivation to achieve the highest accolade in sport is fuelled by patriotism as well as personal ambition – while she represents one of India’s best hopes of landing a medal in any sport at the Games, the Hyderabadi is also determined to better the bronze she won at the 2012 Games in London.

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And it is the ability to adapt to playing conditions in Brazil during what will be an intense fortnight for all competitors that Nehwal believes holds the key to success at the Games.

“It all depends on how you get adjusted to the conditions there,” she said before the Games. “There are a lot of things like time difference that will affect us only after we go there. How well you prepare here [at home] is not the main thing, but how you take care of the other aspects there is important.”

Important no doubt, but Nehwal did not rise to the apex of her sport on good planning and preparation alone.

Endowed with natural sporting talent – she reached the level of brown belt in karate as a child before switching to badminton at the age of eight – the current world no. 5 also possesses a fierce competitive streak and constantly strives for self-improvement on the court.

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It is these characteristics that have propelled Nehwal to the top of her game, making history along the way: her bronze in London four years ago was the first medal won by an Indian at badminton, while no other Indian woman has ever reached the ranking of world no. 1 in the sport.

The next objective on her record-breaking list? Olympic gold in Rio. And at 26 years of age – the beginning of her peak sporting years – Nehwal stands as good a chance as any to once again achieve what no other Indian shuttler ever has.       

Saina Nehwal plays her first match in Rio on Thursday, August 11, the opening day of the Olympic badminton competition