We are the Champions

Posted by Channel 6
July 3, 2012

The Olympics remain the most compelling search for excellence that exists in sport, and maybe in life itself.” These are the words of Dawn Fraser, Australian swimmer and three-time 100-metres freestyle gold medallist. The holy grail of athletes and the ultimate test of their worth, the Olympics are matchless for their grandeur and majesty. It is in this arena that a nation will be closely following the fortunes of five players from Hyderabad.

Saina Nehwal, Ashwini Ponnappa, Jwala Gutta, P Kashyap and V Diju could well
be the toast of India if they create history in London. Dedicated, hard-working
and full of self-confidence — will these time-honoured traits translate into victory?
Minal Khona talks to our badminton champions about their passion for the sport and
their prospects of an Olympic medal.
Saina Nehwal
Today, as she prepares for the London Olympics 2012, an entire nation’s hopes rest on her serves and smashes. Yes, she made it to the quarter finals in 2008, becoming the first Indian woman to reach that level. But India’s No. 1 player is not in the habit of resting on her laurels. At 22, she has a long haul ahead, and winning the ultimate prize in sports — an Olympic gold — is that elusive goal she still has to achieve.
In her typical style, replies never meandering too far from the questions asked, Saina shares with us details about herself, her preparation for the games and her hopes and expectations.
The Olympics maybe just a few weeks away but Saina is unfazed, training like she always does. She says, “I am not doing anything extra for the Olympics. We are following the training schedule set down by my coach Shri Gopichandji. Right now, my focus is on the tournaments coming up before the Olympics.”
It is said that in any sport it is in the mind that half the battle is won. In the past, she used to get emotional and cry over a lost match, admits Saina.
Gopichand has helped her get tougher and has improved her concentration. She says, “I listen to my coach. It makes me more focussed before a match.” And what is this advice? “Release all negativity, if any, from the mind.”
Before on-court clashes, she studies the games of rivals, with the Chinese players, whom she regards as the toughest opponents, getting extra attention. “It gives me several pointers on how to tackle them,” she says. On another note, Saina has a habit of sitting quietly by herself for a few minutes before a match, saying a prayer and then stepping on to the court.
Saina and her family’s sacrifices to ensure she stays focussed on the game are well known. While they are bringing rich dividends today, Saina is like any other young person — wanting to enjoy herself, go out with friends and just have fun. She often has to forego the larks that kids her age indulge in, but she doesn’t let this get her down.
In an earlier interview, she had mentioned to me that given her hectic schedules and frequent travel for the game, by the time she gets to know someone, she is off again for a tournament. Not being able to keep in touch regularly has made her miss out on forging strong bonds of friendship.
The sacrifices extend, but naturally, to her diet as well. Healthy food and “general meals like dal, eggs, chicken rice, rotis, salads etc. are part of her diet. She also ensures a regular intake of seasonal fruit juices, milk and curds plus protein and carb mixtures.” Her favourite meal though is an aloo paratha that she indulges in and in her other favourite — ice cream — occasionally, or more importantly, after winning a match.
The long hours of training, working out at the gym and concentrating only on the game don’t exhaust her. With Saina, one doesn’t fear burnout though she has been playing badminton for over a decade now. She says, “I am totally focussed on the game. I love winning matches and it is the thought of winning that drives me to do better. I will do my best at the Olympics too.” The losses are approached as learning curves, with tears and self-reprimand, especially if it is her mistake.
But Saina has learnt to play with the spirit of a champion. Her worldwide ranking, which once rose to No. 3 and No. 2 and is currently stable at No. 5, only motivates her towards her most cherished dream — to be the World
No. 1.
With the entire nation watching her, her coaches banking on her to win an Olympic medal, and with her own drive to win, doesn’t the pressure get too much? How does this 22-year-old keep it at bay and not let it affect her game? She says, “I am aware of the pressure, yes, and I will try my best to live up to the expectations of my countrymen in the Olympics. I also sometimes feel that there should not be any lacunae on my part. I believe that I must follow my exercises and game in such a way that the standard remains very high. And I hope I can stay injury-free throughout.”
Saina is one of those people who have remained level-headed despite success. It is this quality that also helps her deploy the strategy of channelling pressure to improve her game. And watching stalwarts of other sports, such as Roger Federer and Sachin Tendulkar has also helped. “Just seeing the way they approach their game, I have learnt a lot about being a winner.”
So, will Saina make history in London? That remains to be seen but one cannot doubt that she will give it her best shot, looking to stand on the podium with a gold medal around her neck. It will be a proud moment for her, for Gopichand, her parents, for Hyderabad and for a billion Indians. On her young shoulders, rests the burden of creating history in the sport of badminton. More power to her.
P. Kashyap
He turned out to be the wild card entry into the Olympics. A walkover from World No. 4 Jin Chen of China at the India Open Super Series ensured his berth in the quadrennial games. Parupalli Kashyap, who will be representing India in the men’s singles in badminton talks about his strategy for the Games.
He is 24, and is understandably excited at the prospect of participating in the London Olympics. And why not? For, it was hard work and sacrifices along with a stroke of luck that have brought him to this stage.
Ever since he won the boys’ singles at the National Junior Open Badminton Championships while representing Andhra Pradesh, his talent has not gone unacknowledged. He has won international tournaments and his ranking improved with each win. Currently ranked at World No. 26, his preparations for the Games have already begun. He says, “I was really happy to hear that I had qualified for the Olympics. I expected Ajay Jayaram to do so as he was ahead of me in ranking and points. But he lost the match he was playing, and the Chinese player I was to meet opted out. So I didn’t need to qualify the way I was supposed to — by winning a match to reach the semis. It was a walkover.
Joy was mingled with relief. “There was a lot of pressure. The build-up to the India Open was especially tense because, honestly, the chance of qualifying seemed quite remote.” He adds, “But it is nothing compared to the pressure on Saina to win.”
When I ask him about his training schedule, he replies, “I will be leaving on the 24th of July, so there is enough time. But I am training every day and the tournaments in Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore are like practice for the Games.”
Kashyap has a bit of a reputation of upsetting one of the higher-ranked players in every tournament. At the Indonesian Open, he beat World No. 3 and China’s hope for the Olympic Gold — Chen Long — to enter the quarter-finals. Kashyap went on to the semis where he lost.
He is aware that he has a tough battle on his hands: “The world’s top 40 will be there. Whoever is ahead of me will be a challenge.” To prepare for the Games, besides the six hours or more of rigorous practice, there is also time spent working on fitness in the gym.
He is being supported by the Olympic Gold Quest, a foundation set up by Viren Rasquinha and Yonex sponsors his apparel and kits. Other than that, this youngster has not had any endorsement offers or sponsors. He says, “All credit to Saina because her achievements have increased the popularity of the sport. Her victories are so prestigious that her endorsements inevitably overshadow those of other players.”
Maybe winning a medal at the Olympics will change all that, I ask. Pat comes his wry reply: “Yeah, but it’s not like I am going to be as famous as a cricketer, right? Having said that, very few men have reached the premier events in the singles category in badminton. I am lucky to be part of that club.”
A student of All Saints High School and St Francis Xavier Defence College in Bengaluru, Kashyap moved to Hyderabad when his father was transferred here. He has had to miss out on college due to training, but has no complaints. His parents have been very supportive, he says, adding “I haven’t felt deprived during my teen years.” On the diet front, Kashyap has had to stay away from deep fried food and no curds at night as it causes wheezing.
This wild card is known to surprise the audience with his comebacks in the game. If he succeeds, he may still not become a household name like his cricketing brethren. But, he will become the first Indian to win an Olympic medal in badminton. No cricketer can beat that!

V. Diju
He is the low-key partner of Jwala Gutta in the mixed doubles category. Together they rank No.14 in the world. A long way from his native Calicut, Valiyaveetil Diju talks about his game and his routine before the Olympics.
Diju was suffering from intense back pain when we met him for the interview. But his sanguine demeanour hides his discomfort. His routine is pretty much the same as that of the others. Practice on court for three hours, then a couple of hours at the gym and then back to the court. About his first time at the Olympics he says, “I am very excited that I have got this opportunity to play. I don’t think about the pressure at all — to me it is playing that is important.”
Diju, who hails from Calicut in Kerala, started playing in 1992 at the age of 12. His parents sent him to Thrissur since it had a training facility set up by the Sports Authority of India. “I lived in a hostel far from home, so that I could play.”
A seven-time national champion with Jwala in the mixed doubles category, the pair won the Bitburger Open Championship in Germany. They also bagged the bronze at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, a silver at the CWG in Delhi and the Gold at the Indian Open Grand Prix. Their world ranking stands at 14.
Diju and Jwala share a good rapport on court and off it. As friends and and as a team they share a certain telepathy and their games reflect that. While Jwala is the more expressive and emotional player, Diju complements her with his calmness. Their combination on court works because they are in sync about the kind of strokes to be played and the strategy applied. “Till now we have never disagreed about anything,” points out Diju.
Besides his game, Diju is working on his frame of mind too. “I watch the games of my rivals very closely. To me, anyone ahead of me is a potential competitor. I am concentrating on my technique because I think that is the area that is most important on court.” Luckily for him, his usual intake of chicken, fish and vegetables hasn’t changed.
The shuttler, who will be getting married to a doctor later this year, is very optimistic about a medal. “Jwala and I have beaten some very strong contenders. I am sure we have a very good chance of winning a medal at the Olympics.”
Jwala Gutta
Jwala Gutta will be the first Indian woman to take part in two events at the Olympic Games badminton this year. She will play in the mixed doubles and the women’s doubles categories. The seven-time national champion stands a very good chance of bringing home a medal with one or both of her partners.
Jwala’s commitment to badminton goes beyond just playing for herself. She has spoken up in public, against some of the detrimental practices that were being followed by the Badminton Association of India in the past. And, not only because her entry into the 2008 Olympics was allegedly stone-walled by the Association. She says, “The procedure is that a player has to play a certain number of tournaments and have a particular ranking to be able to compete in the Olympics. In my case, the Association didn’t file my entry for various tournaments, insisting I had to be here for training sessions. I had even funded my way through an international tournament in
the past.”
Be it that incident or instances where players were not given their dearness allowance in time, Jwala has always spoken up for the players.
“There are some players, though, from the younger lot who I think are very selfish, as are their families. They don’t complain as they get everything on a platter and don’t speak up for the players as a group. But I believe in fighting for my principles,” she says.
Luckily for Jwala, a lot of the issues she raised have been addressed. “The current president, Akhilesh Dasgupta, is a good man. He sends money from his pocket if the allowance doesn’t reach us in time. More importantly, he is open to new ideas and suggestions.”
Even though Jwala is a well-known face on the social circuit, and the winner of several international tournaments, she hasn’t had sponsors and endorsements to match. The Laqshya Foundation supports her, but she wonders why Olympic Gold Quest has chosen to overlook her and her partner. “I don’t know why they don’t want us. If we are not prospective medal winners, I don’t know who is. And even if they think I don’t qualify, being in my late 20s, what about Ashwini? She is only 22. Surely they can support her,” says Jwala, who, with Ashwini is No. 18 in world rankings.
The obstacles she has faced have not deterred Jwala in any way; in fact, they have strengthened her resolve to do her best. Having won the National mixed doubles tournament seven times and the women’s doubles 10 times, along with the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, Jwala now stands a very good chance of bringing home an Olympic medal. She will be taking part in two events and has partners who complement her in every way.
Does Jwala have any plan in place for the Games? “I don’t have a set strategy. I believe in being mentally alert on court and observing everything closely. I have been practising my game and working out every day too.”
On court, she is the more animated, expressive partner, often playing mentor to Ashwini. They also spend time socialising and, more importantly, watching, along with their coach S M Arif, the games of their rivals.
Jwala has lost a lot of weight in preparation. At 5’10”, she is really tall; but agile and light on her feet. Her confidence speaks volumes for her state of mind. “I am looking forward to participating in the Olympics, especially because I couldn’t take part the last time. I don’t think I need to prove anything to anyone. At the same time, even with my practice and exercise routines, I continue to socialise and go out with friends. So, whatever the outcome at the Olympics, I am going there to give it my best shot. And to have fun while I am playing.”
As for what the future holds, Jwala is not sure. We quiz her about the rumours that she plans to work in a movie and write a book. She laughs and says, “I am open to new things. If I get an opportunity to act, why not? I have seen how hard the actors work, so I have a lot of respect for what they do. And no, I don’t have plans of writing a book.
“I am not a planner, and I take life as it comes. One thing, I can say — I have no plans to retire from the sport. I may get involved in promoting badminton for the BAI or on my own.” And given her passion, we are sure Jwala will be a success at whatever she does.
Ashwini Ponnappa
She has been partnering Jwala Gutta in the women’s doubles and is one of the game’s rising stars. Meet Ashwini Ponnappa, our 22-year-old hopeful for the doubles medal.
The girl with the deadliest smash on court has won many accolades playing with Jwala, the gold at the Commonwealth Games, New Delhi, and the bronze at the world championships, to name a few.
Their world ranking in the doubles stands at 16 — a rank that qualified them for the Olympics. Recalls Ashwini, “We weren’t too sure but when the news was released officially, I was greatly relieved. That is because we lost in the quarterfinals at the India Open Series and I was unsure if that had affected our ranking. I was happy that we qualified because I know we have it in us to do a good job.”
Ashwini showed promise as a kid when she took to the sport but her parents were particular that she didn’t miss out on school. Thanks to very supportive teachers and the principal of St Francis Xavier Girls High School in Bengaluru, her academic performance did not suffer. “My teachers helped me to catch up on the classes missed. I would leave school for training at 2 pm while school went on till 3.30. For my first and second year at Mt Carmel’s, I hardly attended college, but my tutors were wonderful. Luckily for me, the staff at St Mary’s in Hyderabad where I studied after my father got transferred here (he works with the RBI), also helped me with my assignments so that I didn’t have to go to college regularly.”
Ashwini is extremely devoted to her game. “For me, it is my first priority. Irrespective of how the rest of my day has been, even if it is going bad, I don’t let it affect my training.” But Ashwini is known to get impatient on court ­— at herself. How does she plan to keep that in check in the Olympic arena? “It is one of my biggest challenges — to stay calm on court. I get quite upset and emotional and tend to dwell on a mistake I have made.”
Here, her rapport with her partner Jwala has helped a lot. The older, more experienced player guides her through tricky and disappointing moments. She says, “Jwala helps me to bounce back. She keeps telling me even when we lose, not to brood about it too much and that it is not the end of the world. It’s a game and there are bound to be losses and victories.”
They also hang out together. “We have a good understanding between us. Jwala is the more dominant partner on court, while I tend to listen more. Having said that, she is always open to my suggestions if I have something to say. She has a lot more experience — something none of my peers have. I get to learn a lot with her. We think alike and that helps on court. Off court, we go out together for lunches, dinners and shopping sprees.”
Preparation for the Olympics are on in full swing with Ashwini. Her day begins with a session at the Pullela Gopichand Academy at 4.15 in the morning and a second session follows at 7.30 a.m. After a bit of a rest, she follows it up with a session at the gym. “I know that some of our rivals are really tough but I also know that Jwala and I have it in us to beat them.” Other than the usual practice, Ashwini reveals that she and Jwala watch tournaments of their rivals with their coach S M Arif.
Unfazed by the pressure they face as part of the Indian contingent for the Games and the hopes of a medal, Ashwini says, “The pressure has always been there. But I put pressure on myself. I prefer to focus on the game at hand and advance step-by-step. And to keep myself mentally fit, I am doing yoga. I know I have to be on my toes and my thought process has to be razor sharp if I have to combat my rivals’ moves.”
As the Games approach, Ashwini plans to keep a low profile and stay out of the limelight. She wants to remain calm before she leaves on the 24th of July so that all the hoopla and excitement doesn’t affect her. After all, at 22, a chance to play in the Olympics, in a sport not as popular as it should be, is not something one gets every day. The excitement is bound to be there, but it has to be underlined by something far more tangible — competence at the sport and, as we all hope, a medal.
Guru Speak
They are the mentors, the coaches who have nurtured the talent displayed by our young players. They share their thoughts on who will bring home an Olympic medal.
Pullela Gopichand: He has been awarded the Dronacharya, the Arjuna, and the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna awards; and the Padma Shri. After winning the All England Championships in the year 2001, Gopichand founded a facility to spot and train young talent. The Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Gachibowli is where all our Olympic team members practice.
“There is a realistic chance of winning a medal in the women’s singles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles categories. There is an outside chance that we will win in the men’s singles category too,” says Gopichand.
He adds, “Winning a medal at the Olympics is not easy. It is the highest level of competition and the players have to have a razor sharp thought process and be on their toes. They also have to be calm at all times. “
Coaching, he says, comes with its own challenges but “not many have gone down this path. I wanted to do something to give back to my sport.”
Syed Mohammed Arif: Padma Shri and Dronacharya awardee, Syed Mohammed Arif has travelled all over the country coaching the likes of Pullela Gopichand to Saina Nehwal. On Saina’s chances in the Olympic Games, Arif says that the World No. 5 stands a chance of winning a medal. “In recent times, Saina has beaten every player except World No. 1 Wang Yihan. She is also in a perfect frame of mind now, where she can beat her opponents. Apart from that, a lot depends on the draw and the day of the match.”
On the medal prospects of other players, Arif feels the women’s doubles pair of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa and the mixed doubles pair of Jwala and V Diju have a chance. Arif has trained Jwala and Ashwini, and has seen Diju play at the Gopichand Academy as he is a coach emeritus there. “For the Olympics, Jwala has lost five kilos and her mental toughness too is high.” The mixed doubles pair have been playing well. On P Kashyap’s chances, he thinks the Indian champ lacks international exposure. However, the coach also believes that on the day of the match, apart from the player’s frame of mind, a lot depends on court conditions.
Syed Mohammed Arif: Padma Shri and Dronacharya awardee, Syed Mohammed Arif has travelled all over the country coaching the likes of Pullela Gopichand to Saina Nehwal. On Saina’s chances in the Olympic Games, Arif says that the World No. 5 stands a chance of winning a medal. “In recent times, Saina has beaten every player except World No. 1 Wang Yihan. She is also in a perfect frame of mind now, where she can beat her opponents. Apart from that, a lot depends on the draw and the day of the match.”
On the medal prospects of other players, Arif feels the women’s doubles pair of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa and the mixed doubles pair of Jwala and V Diju have a chance. Arif has trained Jwala and Ashwini, and has seen Diju play at the Gopichand Academy as he is a coach emeritus there. “For the Olympics, Jwala has lost five kilos and her mental toughness too is high.” The mixed doubles pair have been playing well. On P Kashyap’s chances, he thinks the Indian champ lacks international exposure. However, the coach also believes that on the day of the match, apart from the player’s frame of mind, a lot depends on court conditions.
With inputs from Lakshmi Ramakrishna

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