Dev S Sukumar. Birmingham
March 12: Beyond the glamour of the five-star receptions and state honours and television interviews, Saina Nehwal braces. It’s early yet, just 8am on a bitterly cold morning in Birmingham, and she will have to wait until evening to take on her opponent for a place in the All England semifinal. It’s going to be another tough day; the kind that has defined her playing life — and far removed from the starry images that people associate with a sporting icon.
No Indian has been in the All England semis since 2001, when her coach Pullela Gopichand pulled off a stirring victory. She’s been in Super Series quarterfinals before, and although she won’t admit it, this is big. This is the 100th year of the All England. All the top players talk of how special this one is.
A lot of the game is in the waiting. The match will probably take an hour-and-a-half at most; the rest of the time is spent in preparing and not allowing the mind to get too far ahead. It’s about doing the small things right.
Right now, Saina’s headed back to the hotel from her practice session at the NIA, which is built next to a picturesque waterway. A few geese are playing around in the water and Saina stops to watch. She will head to the team hotel, have her breakfast, sleep for 1-1/2 hours, have lunch, watch a movie for an hour; head to yet another practice session at 2pm, and return to the hotel for rest, before she finally makes her way to the stadium an hour before the match.
“I have to be prepared for everything, have good food, take rest, sleep properly,” Saina says. “Everything should be on time. If I’m sleeping, sleep for 1-1/2 hours, then have food three hours before. Just before the match have a banana or something. It’s important that you should not be tense. When I enter the court again in the evening, I can’t be just 30 per cent prepared, and leave the rest to whatever’s going to happen. It’s important to ensure that because it’s so cold here, I’m properly warmed up. Also, I’ve played these girls before, and you need to read their game again and again.”
“Earlier, it was a problem if I had a whole day left for the match,” she says. “Sometimes it’s tiresome; sometimes you train, have breakfast, sleep, go for lunch. So you feel, oh god, there’s so much time, what to do. Sometimes I watch a movie… Now that I’ve played so much, I don’t think about it (the waiting period). Because I know the match can be at 5 or 9 at night. But in the beginning it was a problem — that there’s a whole day for my match. But now, I’m fine with whatever time it is.
When a match is due, all top players go into a shell. Any small detail left unattended can hurt them. The mind has to be finely balanced; it cannot be too excited or too lethargic; it cannot be allowed to wander around, nor can it dwell on a particular thing all day, for then mental fatigue will set in. Rest is important, but she can’t overdo it. “It’s important that you should not be tense,” Saina says. “At this tournament I’ve decided to give my 100 per cent and not worry about the result.”
She will be playing Julianne Schenk. The German policewoman is a physically tough specimen; she is fast and powerful, and has beaten Saina a couple of times. Schenk will be in a similar state of readiness. She has had a busy fortnight, having come to the All England from the German Open, but after her second round she promised she’d give it everything. It might be a long match.