For a country starved of successes at the individual level in world sport, Saina Nehwal’s feat of becoming the first Indian woman shuttler to reach the No.1 position in the world is a stupendous achievement. The 25-year-old Nehwal — a resident of Hyderabad — achieved this mark during the course of the 2015 India Open Super Series badminton tournament. Nehwal eventually won, defeating former world championRatchanok Intanon of Thailand. Amidst the collective disappointment in the cricket-mad country following India’s loss to Australia in the World Cup, Nehwal’s mark has offered a moment of immense pride and delight for Indian sports-lovers. Very few Indians have reached the pinnacle of individual sports. In badminton, only Prakash Padukone had reached the No.1 mark, more than three decades ago. Nehwal now occupies a distinguished position in Indian sport along with achievers such as chess grandmaster Viswanathan Anand and boxer Mary Kom, both of whom reached the top positions in the respective individual sports.
Nehwal’s ascent was aided by the fact that the reigning Olympic badminton champion, Li Xuerui from China, sustained an injury and has played sparingly in the past few months. It is Nehwal’s persistent competitiveness that has allowed her to remain in the top echelons of her sport, and helped her reach the summit at an opportune time. She had won five major tournaments since 2014 — the Indian Open Grand Prix twice, the Australian Super Series and the China Open in 2014, and the India Super Series in 2015. Credit must also go to Nehwal’s coaches over the years, who include Dronacharya award winner Syed Arif, badminton legend Pullela Gopichand and the present coach Vimal Kumar, who is also a former Indian champion. As with other Indian sportspersons — Viswanathan Anand in particular — Nehwal’s success could spur other Indians to take a liking to that sport and inspire them to seek competitive pursuits. The lack of adequate sporting infrastructure, the general absence of a sporting culture, and the domination of cricket in media coverage of sports in the country have meant that Indian achievements in individual sports are few and far between. Here is hoping that such triumphs as Nehwal’s are not flashes in the pan but the start of a trend of strong competitiveness among individual sportspersons, at least in badminton. The victory of male shuttler K. Srikanth in the same tournament — which lifted his world ranking to No.4 — suggests there is indeed something strong brewing in Indian badminton.