Women of Steel
Sania Mirza and Saina Nehwal’s formidable legacy in their respective sports inspires a new crop of young players who are treading on their footprints.
India Open Grand Prix Gold 2009, 2010, 2014, 2015
China Open Super Series Premier 2014
India Super Series 2015
Indonesia Super Series Premier 2009, 2010, 2012
2012 London Olympics bronze medallist (singles)
2015 All England runner-up
Coaches: Saina has had two high-profile coaches who have played a part in shaping her career—Pullela Gopichand and U Vimal Kumar. Apart from those two,
she also works with Deckline Leitao, a strength and performance specialist.
Endorsements : Major products include Yonex (equipment), Sahara India Parivar (ambassador) and Herbalife
Net worth: Rs 17 crore
Australian Open 2009
French Open 2012
US Open 2014
Other major titles:
WTA Finals (Singapore) 2014
Coaches: Her first coach was
father Imran. She also works
with Roger Anderson.
Prize money: $4,358,783
Net worth: Rs 26 crore
endorsements : Major brands include Adidas.
(Was also appointed brand ambassador of Telangana last year)
It’s a dyslexic headliner’s nightmare. Saina Nehwal and Sania Mirza. The two glowing divas of Indian sport, both from Hyderabad, divided by their chosen game and mindset but united by the common thread of their singular pursuit of sporting immortality. Both are bona fide legends, at least in their country, where recognition for sportswomen is perceptibly reserved. Greatness was seldom ordained or thrust on them. Rather, they had to acquire it, piercing through the selfishly reluctant male perceptions with the dint of work ethics and, more significantly, the sheer volume of their achievements.
It’s incongruous to compare or contrast their careers or persona, for they are women of distinct generations and backgrounds. It might be that Sania is just three years older, but when Saina won the U-19 national crown in 2006, Sania was already a starlet, having breached into the top 50 and a year away from marking her best-ever ranking (World No. 27 in August 2007), her posters outselling Bollywood stars, advertisement revenue matching that of cricketers.
Thereafter, it has been a case of contrasting turns. Sania’s rankings plummeted, like a stock-market crash, chiefly due to injuries, whereas Saina steadily climbed rung after rung, seldom in haste but always assured and uncomplicated.
Soon, Sania Mania gave way to Super Saina chants. Not that she was completely out of the public consciousness—her wedding with Pakistan cricketer Shoaib Malik still grabbed headline space—but Sania was looked upon as an over-the-hill pro.
Meanwhile, Saina’s stocks boomed, as she hoarded accolade after accolade, her cabinet crammed with trophies and medals. And on April 2, she was crowned World No. 1, though it lasted just a week.
Around the same time, Sania capped her remarkable return to professional circuit, when she became World No. 1 in doubles alongside new partner and former World No. 1, Martina Hingis. Her journey, this time, went almost unnoticed and less celebrated, but her feat was a rhapsodic triumph of will. Now Saina and Sania are again proving to be a dyslexic headliner’s nightmare, the frequency at which they are hoarding headline space.
Irrespective of where their careers are headed, they have carved a redoubtable legacy. The legacy of pioneers. And already, there are zealous teens treading on their footprints.
Take, for instance, 14-year-old shuttler Nandamuri Yeshaswini. The daughter of hockey couple Mukesh Kumar and Nidhi forsake the stick for the racquet, awed by Saina. Her parents were initially shocked, but after realising her passion, they took her to Pullela Gopichand’s academy, which was 30 km from their residence in Hyderabad. “We were taken aback initially. She reasoned she was inspired by Saina. We thought for a while and then agreed,” says Mukesh, a former captain himself.
There are hundreds of girls like Yeshaswini at Gopichand’s academy, including his daughter Gayathri, who has already won a brace of sub-junior national titles. Agrees Gopichand: “Saina has been an inspiration to many players. The success of Saina and (P V) Sindhu has made parents believe their daughters too can swing the racquet to new heights.”
Foremost among the Saina-influenced generation is 19-year-old Sindhu, ranked ninth in the world and talked about as Saina’s heir apparent. “Saina showed the way and Sindhu followed that path. If Saina breached the Chinese Wall, Sindhu has shown her mettle and made a heavy dent by beating top Chinese players. A natural attacker, she has the game to beat the best. That way, Sindhu is a little ahead of Saina, who initially was more of a retriever before developing all-round skills. At 19, she has two world championship bronze medals,” points out former international player Sanjay Sharma, who also reckons Sindhu is mentally tougher and is a sure-shot medal prospect in Rio.
Moreover, there are a bevy of youngsters waiting in the wings, the brigade comprising P C Thulasi (40), Saili Rane (75), Tanvi Lad (81) and Arundhati Pantawane (108). Saina’s coach U Vimal Kumar brackets his ward alongside trendsetting athletes P T Usha and Anju Bobby George, and shooter Anjali Bhagwat. “We had women like Usha, Anju and Anjali to inspire the young and take up their sport. But now Saina and Sania are torch-bearers. There is a lot of untapped talent and we have to spot it. Saina is a trendsetter. She has surely revolutionised the game in the country. Her work ethics is a perfect example to sportspersons in the country,” he says.
Unlike badminton post Saina, tennis might not have, on the apparent, thrown up talented players in huge numbers after Sania. This is partly due to the intrinsically grinding nature of the sport itself, which involves a lot of money, competition and luck. That only puts into perspective the enormity of her accomplishments.
There’s no arguing Sania has inspired a generation of youngsters to embrace the sport. Talk to any youngster who has taken up the sport in that span, there is a Sania-spurred story behind it. “I began playing tennis from a young age. But it was one among the many sports I played. My mother was an athlete and a table tennis player. But seeing Sania on TV, I told my parents I want to play tennis and no other game. I had to sacrifice a lot for reaching where I’m now, like I had to move from Ahmedabad to Pune. But every time I feel frustrated and disappointed, I think of Sania and the number of sacrifices she has made. I get automatically motivated,” admits India top seed Ankita Raina.
The Ahmedabad-born girl is ranked 248 in the world, but is presently India’s best by a country mile. Already 23, she might not even sneak into the top 100, but she is on a constant bid to improve. Playing alongside Sania is an incentive. “I remember my first camp with her. I didn’t go and talk to her for a while because I just kept admiring her from a distance. She was relaxed and humble, and ever-ready to give advice. In camps and all, we pester her for tips, which she never refuses. She is like an elder sister to me, the go-to person,” recounts Ankita.
Prarthana Thombare is another youngster making waves in the national circuit. The player from Maharashtra, who climbed to 335 in the world last year, believes women’s tennis is braced for an upswing. “It’s very exciting and inspiring to know the World No. 1 is from India. This proves all of us can reach that level. It also is a slap in the face of those who believe Indians are mentally weak,” she says.
So reckons another up-and-coming player, Natasha Palha. “Sania is a very inspiring person, the way she behaves and is able to deal with so many different types of people and the way she just concentrates on her game rather than the distractions. We hope to learn all these from her,” she says. This reminds us of young cricketers invoking Sachin Tendulkar’s influence after every personal milestone.
Sania, they believe, can be the guiding force of their career, something the icon herself has taken up in full earnest. “In every Games, I used to be one of the youngest and now I am the oldest. All these girls are my sister’s age. For me, my sister is a baby. So I help them whenever they need. I’m always there to guide them. At first, it was a bit awkward, but now I am not only used to it but also loving it,” Sania said at the Incheon Games last year.
Like most sports, workout sessions have moved on from just being a session of lifting weights at the gym. They have become more scientific, and the players, who are wired with everything from GPS to heart-rate monitors, also have a better understanding of their bodies. They do not just stick to one particular form of physical training. They stretch, do both short as well as long sprints, and go back home with a nutrition chart in their pockets. Like in most sports, the players are allowed some mileage during the off-season, but the amount of flab they pick up during that time will mean more gym work just as the season begins.
Saina, too, is comfortable with this responsibility. Soon after winning bronze in the London Games, she said, “This medal will change a lot of things. We will see a change in the badminton scene and more girls will take up the sport.” It has already.
Part of their overall allure is that they are irrepressibly marketable—sassy, cool and bold. They have slit through gender stereotypes, often making a mockery of it; especially Sania, who had to stave off the obsessive scrutiny of clerics. Her career itself is a perfect repartee to those oppressive diktats. Or maybe, we can borrow one of those lines from a T-shirt she had worn at a press conference a decade ago during US Open: “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” The exception might be Saina, bashful and unassuming, almost to a fault. Saina and Sania again. But the dyslexic headliner can’t be pardoned.
P V Sindhu Born: July 5, 1995
2009: The Hyderabadi shoots to fame by clinching bronze in the badminton Sub-Junior Asian Championships
April 2010: Reaches the quarterfinals of the World Junior Championships in Guadalajara, Mexico
July 2012: Claims Asia Youth U-19 Championship title, beating Japanese player Nozomi Okuhara in final
October 2012: Finishes second in the Senior Nationals at Srinagar
December 2012: Runner-up at Syed Modi India Grand Prix
May 2013: Wins Malaysian Open Grand Prix Gold crown, her first Grand Prix win. She beat Juan Gu of Singapore
August 2013: Wins bronze at World Championships, becoming the first Indian woman to do so in singles competition
December 2013: Claims Macau Open Grand Prix Gold title
July 2014: Bronze at Glasgow Commonwealth Games
September 2014: Becomes first Indian to bag back-to-back medals at the World Championships, after bagging another bronze in the event in Copenhagen.
November 2014: Retains Macau Open title, while also retaining her career-high world ranking of nine
JWALA GUTTA Born: Sept 7, 1983
Ashwini PONNAPPA Born: Sept 18, 1989
October 2010: They create history by becoming the first badminton women’s pair to win a gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi
August 2011: The duo continue their fine run by winning a bronze at the World Championships
August 2012: The pair go on to win two group matches at the Summer Olympics but miss out on a quarterfinal berth by one point 2013: After Jwala takes a sabbatical from the game, Ashwini pairs up with Maharashtra’s Pradnya Gadre
August 2014: The prolific pairing are back and they go on to win a silver at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow