Saina Nehwal is redefining the mould of the Indian sportsperson.
The other day, Na Li, China’s top woman tennis player, played Serena Williams, an African American, at Wimbledon. Serena is 5’9” and weighs 68 kg. Na Li is nearly two inches shorter and three kilos lighter. The physical aspect of their game came through each time the racket swatted the ball. Deriving power and balance from their strong thighs, they wielded their racquets like sledgehammers.
Genetically and geographically, Sania Mirza (5’7”, 58 kg) would be somewhere between the two. But physically she would be a long way off. The best woman tennis player we have produced, Mirza comes up short against the top players. She is a step slower, her serve a notch weaker. Despite a reasonable showing in 2005 — reasonable, not stellar — she never looked like being a dominant force. She always looked too fat for that, despite being lighter. (Any fitness expert would tell you that muscles weigh much more than fat.)
Physical fitness, or the lack of it, has always pegged back Indian sportsmen. Many would say that the mental aspect of a game is more critical. That it may be, but eventually the mind directs the body to respond. Indians, citing genetic constitution and vegetarian diet, have always shied away from attaining a high level of fitness. Instead, they have taken refuge in the softer aspects.
In cricket, the fastest bowlers to play for India were Amar Singh and Mohammed Nissar, who made the first Test tour 80 years ago. For the next five decades, we relied on spinners. From Kapil onwards, there have been some medium pacers, but no tear-away fast bowler.
In hockey, we won till the time the game was decided on stick-work. Once astro turf came in, we began attributing our poor showing to how physical the game had become. We never tried to play the new game, we would rather sneer at it. And lose.
In tennis, Ramanathan Krishnan is the only Indian to have played a grand slam semi-final, actually two of them, both at Wimbledon. But he was a ‘touch artiste’, who would ‘caress’ the ball. His son Ramesh, who kept the flag fluttering mildly for some time, was in the same mould. Vijay Amritraj tried to play like the Americans, but never got beyond the quarters.
In badminton, Prakash Padukone was the antithesis to the Chinese. So is Saina Nehwal, but she is not an artiste. Her game is not about ‘touch’ play. Unlike Padukone, she does not caress the shuttle, she smashes the feathers out of it. She is beating the Chinese at their own game and has muscled her way — not shimmied — to number three as the only non-Chinese in the Top 10.
As a young girl of eight or nine, Nehwal used to wake up at four in the morning to take a bus with her father to her practice venue 25 kilometres away. She saw the sacrifices made by her father Harvir Singh, a scientist with the Directorate of Oilseeds Research Hyderabad, who bought her a barrel of shuttles every day and a new racquet each time she lost one as she fell asleep on the way back from practice. In redefining the mould of the Indian sportsperson, Nehwal has made a precious gift to us.