Saina Nehwal will always have a special place in Indian badminton history.
The London 2012 bronze medallist is heading towards the twilight of a glittering sporting career with her qualification chances at the 2020 Olympics still in the balance.
The 29-year-old world number 18 has very little time available before the qualification period ends on April 30 with only a few big-ticket tournaments coming her way.
In order to get a direct qualification into the 2020 Olympics, Saina Nehwal must come within the top 16 badminton players of the women singles Olympic qualification list before the qualification period ends.
Whether she makes it to Tokyo or not, the former women singles world number one has achieved a lot in her career.
Under the guidance of Pullela Gopichand and then U Vimal Kumar, Saina Nehwal became India's first badminton star, if not a superstar.
The England Championships challenge
The one tournament that Saina Nehwal always wanted to win, but is yet to get her hands on, is the upcoming All England Open, which is within the qualification period.
India’s previous badminton greats Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand have both won the England Championships and Saina Nehwal had come agonisingly close to winning it as well.
She has been a regular fixture at the England Championships with her first major run in the prestigious tournament coming in 2011 when she had reached the quarter final but lost Japan's Eriko Hirose.
Though the then 22-year-old Nehwal had instantly exacted her revenge on the Japanese on her way to the 2011 Swiss Open title, it wasn’t until 2015 that she reached the final of the England Championships.
Saina Nehwal at the Olympics
But, perhaps, her biggest achievement till date winning the bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics in London.
Saina Nehwal’s tryst with the Olympics started at the 2008 Beijing Games when an 18-year-old Nehwal was first given the huge task to represent her nation on the big stage. Though she didn’t win an Olympic medal then, she had managed to become the first Indian woman ever to reach the quarter finals of an Olympic Games.
What was missed in 2008 was finally fulfilled four years later at the 2012 Olympics. Coming to the tournament with more experience this time, Saina Nehwal assured India’s first-ever Olympic medal in badminton with a bronze in London after her opponent China's Wang Xin retired midway through their bronze medal match.
The 2016 Rio Olympics, however, wasn’t as eventful for Nehwal as she struggled through an injury in the initial stage to bow in the group stages.
Saina Nehwal awards and achievements
Nehwal turned professional in 2006, the year when BWF Superseries was launched. Consequently, she has seen many firsts for Indian badminton, which also includes a whopping 24 international titles of her cabinet.
Saina Nehwal became the first Indian badminton player to win an Olympic medal, the first Indian to reach BWF World Championships final, the first Indian to win a Super Series title and also the first Indian to win two women singles gold medals (2010 and 2018) at the Commonwealth Games.
After the 2012 Olympic medal, Saina Nehwal’s second peak in career came after she left the Gopichand Academy in 2014 to train under coach Vimal Kumar.
"It was good at that point that she went, it was okay but tough for me to be fair," Pullela Gopichand said of the split with the badminton star. "I had time to work on PV Sindhu probably a little more, it was probably needed at that time."
Under former national champion and a Olympian from Barcelona 1992, Vimal Kumar, Saina Nehwal went on to become the first Indian woman badminton player to become world number 1 in women singles in 2015.
She attained the world number 1 position at the India Open Super Series in late March that year after her closest challenger for the spot, Carolina Marin, lost in the semi-final.
Saina Nehwal’s 14-year-long playing career is hailed as one of the most successful sporting stints in the country and the Indian badminton star has been conferred with Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna and the Arjuna Award, apart from India's third highest civilian award – the Padma Bhushan.
Saina Nehwal vs PV Sindhu
When Nehwal first became a household name by clinching the bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics, PV Sindhu was just four years into her professional career. However, the Indian badminton star in the making was already taking giant strides towards greatness.
While PV Sindhu has evidently taken over the mantle of India’s badminton superstar from Nehwal after her silver medal at the 2016 Games, it is the old guard who still holds a head-to-head advantage over her successor.
Saina Nehwal has played PV Sindhu four times so far, with the 29-year-old winning on three occasions with the last victory coming at the 2018 Commonwealth Games women singles final.
Here are the Saina Nehwal vs PV Sindhu results:
- 2014 India GP Gold: Saina Nehwal won 21-14, 21-17
- 2017 India Open: PV Sindhu won 21-16, 22-20
- 2018 Indonesia Masters: Saina Nehwal won 21-13, 21-19
- 2018 Commonwealth Games: Saina Nehwal won 21-18, 23-21
Saina Nehwal biopic stars Parineeti Chopra
After Bollywood movies of MC Mary Kom, Milkha Singh and MS Dhoni smashing box-office collections, Indian badminton star Saina Nehwal’s biopic is also on course to hit the silver screens.
The Saina Nehwal biopic will see actor Parineeti Chopra playing the role of the badminton star in the eponymous movie ‘Saina’.
Directed by Amole Gupte and produced by Bhushan Kumar, ‘Saina’ - based on the life of the Indian badminton player - was slated to be released in early 2020.
"It's amazing. I wish if I had been pushed into sport while growing up. My life would have been different. It's so much fun," said Parineeti Chopra when she visited Saina Nehwal at her home.
Her popularity has been seeding into mainstream television as well. Saina Nehwal has been on The Kapil Sharma Show, a popular entertainment programme touted as the nation’s premier comedy show, for instance.
Saina Nehwal and Parupalli Kashyap
Saina Nehwal married long-time partner and fellow Indian badminton player Parupalli Kashyap in December last year after the duo dated for almost a decade.
Nehwal met her husband, a 2014 Commonwealth Games gold medalist, at the Pullela Gopichand Academy in 2005 and they have been training together since. The pair was also seen appearing on The Kapil Sharma Show last year.
"Ours is such a classic love story if you think about it," Saina Nehwal said about her husband Parupalli Kashyap. "We first met at badminton classes, when we were still kids and were childhood friends throughout.
"Then, slowly and steadily that friendship grew into love as we started spending more and more time together. So much so, that soon I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her," she pointed out.
Saina Nehwal joins BJP to fuel ambitions
Saina Nehwal announced earlier this year in January that she joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a major political party in India and currently the ruling majority, at a ceremony in the party headquarters.
"I am a hard-working person and like hard-working people. (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi sir has been working day and night for the country. If I can do something for the country with him, it will be my good fortune," she said, hinting at her political ambitions.
“I draw a lot of inspiration from Modi sir. He inspires me," she added, reasoning why she joined BJP.