It is an inspiring tale from the 2004 Uber Cup, played at Jakarta, Indonesia. Two generations of women’s badminton in India were sharing a room. One was playing her last World Team Championships and the other was to make her debut at the global event.
Saina Nehwal, then only 14 years and several months of age, surprised seasoned-pro Majusha Pawangadkar (now Kanwar) with her determination to excel against the best of the best in the world.
Manjusha narrated how the unprecedented zeal of an upcoming teen left her deeply impressed during the “Let the Bir Fly” webinar, hosted by former international and Delhi Capital Badminton Association president Ameeta Sinh. The seasoned pros were also joined by one of India’s most successful women badminton icons Aparna P0pat.
“I was playing my last Uber Cup and Saina had to make her debut. We were sharing the room. I was amazed at her spirit to win and overcome the top Asian players. Honestly speaking, I didn’t understand when she said ‘I want to beat them (the top Asian players) on the court. We will not lose’,” recalls former national champion and India international Majusha.
The veteran was amazed by the then-teenaged Saina’s confidence and determination. “We have to find a way to beat these girls (Chinese, Indonesian and other favourites). We are better,” Manjusha recalls an exuberant Saina’s amazing confidence. “I was wondering the girl who has not even started her international career was setting such high goals.”
Aparna Popat endorses the sentiment. “In 2006, during my last nationals, I beat Saina Nehwal in the final for my 9th and last title. That very year she went on to win the Philippines Open. She was always playing at that level,” recalls Aparna.
The fire an unassuming Manjusha had seen in the eyes of Saina was to eventually erupt with a volcanic force worth India’s first Olympic medal in badminton and the top position in the Badminton World Federation women’s singles rankings.
Saina now is fighting hard to earn a berth for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, where she eyes to improve upon the colour of her London Games bronze. Now the senior-most player on the circuit in India, Saina is faced with a different kind of a challenge. It is never easy to come from a three-month break enforced by the countrywide lockdown imposed to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic threat.
Aparna has a suggestion for the Indian players. “Players in some countries have hit the court earlier than some others after the lockdown. The ones who returned early will have some edge. In India, the resumption has been slow and that can play on the players’ minds,” says Aparna.
“The situation is not in our control. So, we need to come up with solutions that we would have never thought about in normal circumstances. It is a tough time for players, but they all are capable of overcoming that. There is nothing lost. They will again be playing the game again that they have played all these years.”
The informal chat session lasting over 90 minutes was the third in the series of webinars – Let the Bird Fly – being hosted by Ameeta, herself a former national champion, an India international, a successful politician, philanthropist and now an able badminton administrator.