A badminton icon

Saina Nehwal bei den Malaysia Masters in Kuala Lumpur im Januar 2019
Saina Nehwal bei den Malaysia Masters in Kuala Lumpur im Januar 2019 | © Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

The Indian badminton player, Saina Nehwal, has become a role model for the country. There will soon be a Bollywood biopic. Her country is in urgent need of strong women.

By Saskya Jain

29 March 2015,  at the Siri Fort sports complex in the Indian capital, New Delhi. The final of the India Open badminton tournament is about to start. Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon is playing against India’s ‘Golden Girl’ – Saina Nehwal. The fans have been waiting for this match for hours. Saina, as she is commonly known, is one of the most successful sportswomen that the country has ever produced. And everybody already knows that her previous day’s victory over Yui Hashimoto from Japan means that she now tops the women’s world rankings for badminton. The fact that this historical moment took place on India soil added to her fan base overnight. Especially after the Indian cricket team was knocked out in the semi-final of the cricket World Cup, everyone is now ready to celebrate her as the new muse in Indian sport.

There she is. The crowd is on its feet, applauding and shouting: Sai-na! Sai-na! Sai-na! As always, her black, shoulder-length hair is tied in a ponytail. At least 10 colourful hair clips – her trademark – adorn her head. Serious, almost anxious, she looks down at her feet. Like a school girl who has just been called to the principal’s office. It is as though she can’t hear the cheering, as though she is completely unaware of her new ranking. As though she simply does not believe in her success.

That sportswomen are underestimated at best and systematically discriminated against at worst, is not specific to India. Here, too, discrimination and patriarchy are keywords that will continue to matter for a long time to come.  Yet to claim, as Europeans often do, that the Indian woman as such is oppressed, paints a far simpler picture of the situation than is actually the case. The biographies of activists such as Kiran Bedi or diverse Bollywood actresses prove the point.  And even Saina’s career as ‘sportswoman of the people’ is a telling story.

In India, success in sports – particularly among women – is achieved not because of the state set-up, but despite it. Inadequate financial assistance, virtually no resources, poor management, corruption and a lack of transparency are only some of the hurdles that aspiring Indian athletes have to overcome. Many give up before making it to the top leagues. Public opinion remains the biggest problem. Sport as a career has still not been able to get much recognition. And as one can imagine, young girls with sporting ambitions have been dealt a particularly bad hand.
If you take a look at the biographies of India’s most successful sports personalities, it doesn’t take you long to realise that it is almost always the parents who have spotted talent in the child and have nurtured it with their own resources. Without individual, private support, it is practically impossible to be successful.

Sons bring money into the family, daughters cost money

That was also the case with Saina. She was born in 1990 in the state of Haryana, which borders the Indian capital. Where women are concerned, Haryana is known for the following:  In 2016, there were more gang rapes here than in any other part of the country – of around 1,000 rapes that were registered, 200 were committed by several men.  Haryana is seen as a particularly patriarchal state and is virtually feudal in nature. When a son is born, the family distributes sweets in the neighbourhood. If it’s a girl, the people say: Our condolences, perhaps you will have better luck the next time. Sons bring money into the family, daughters cost money. In most rural areas, people still negotiate a dowry when a daughter is to be married, even though this is illegal, and female foeticide has therefore been practised for centuries. To counter this practice, India made prenatal sex determination a punishable offence in 1994. There is virtually no other state in India where the male-female ratio is so skewed.

And yet Haryana has produced an enormous number of sportswomen who have won medals at international events. At first this appears paradoxical but a closer look helps you understand. The disciplines in which they shine often focus on aspects of combat – one almost wants to say war: wrestling, hockey, shooting, discus throw. Haryanvis, most of whom are farmers, are considered particularly tough and physically strong in India. Perhaps it is this culture that contributes to the sporting achievements for which women and men from the agrarian state are well known. Of course a sport like badminton also offers the opportunity to turn one’s back on the rigid, social conditions.

Sania’s parents also played professional badminton. In fact her mother, Usha, represented Haryana at tournaments. She’s the one who instilled in Saina the dream of becoming a professional badminton player at international level. At each and every tournament, Usha Nehwal sits right in front in the VIP box.

At the age of eight, Saina moved with the family to Hyderabad in south India where her father had been transferred. As she spoke no Telugu, she sought out a sport in which she didn’t have to communicate much and took up badminton. Her talent was soon spotted. Saina’s father invested his provident fund and took loans to enable his younger daughter to get good coaching. In 2006, it officially started to pay off – at the age of 16, Saina won the national Under-19 tournament and the same year became the first Indian woman and the youngest Asian woman to ever win a four-star tournament, the Philippines Open. Since then she has scooped up more than 24 international titles. With a net worth of 2.5 million euros, she is one of the richest badminton players in the world. On Indian television she endorses Vaseline and instant noodles. Shooting is currently under way for a Bollywood biopic.

Role model for young sportswomen

Her success refutes the assumption, particularly in the West, that Indian women are not suited to be national icons. In contrast, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, India’s richest cricketer at the moment, is worth almost 100 million euros. A sportsman, mind you, who only plays as a member of a team. This goes to show just how wide the gap between men’s and women’s sports still is in every part of the world. However, India's colonial past also plays a role in both sports. While the popular game of cricket was invented in England and exported to India, the English invented modern badminton in India itself. The oldest tournament is the All England Open, which opened its doors to non-European players for the first time in 1947. Today, badminton plays a significant role, particularly in Asia. The world’s top players come from China, Indonesia, Japan, India. The last time that an English woman won the singles trophy at the prestigious All England Open was in 1978.

In March 2015, Saina wins the India Open final. In the media she is celebrated as a role model for young sportswomen throughout the country. Only Olympic gold has so far been out of reach. In Rio, where her younger colleague, P.V. Sindhu wins silver, Saina loses in the first round itself – 10 days before the tournament she injured her knee while training. There are rumours in the media of her career being over. She is approaching 30 and is holding onto her world number 9 ranking with difficulty. Defeat at the next Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020 cannot be ruled out.

And then? India is in urgent need of ambitious and strong women icons. In 2020, the average age in the country will be 29 years. Saina would like to set up a badminton institute for young girls in Haryana and thus contribute to the future of the country. So far, she has not been attracted to politics. But why ever not? After his team lost in the semi-finals of the cricket World Cup in 1987, cricket star Imran Khan apparently consoled himself by listening to You Can’t Always Get What You Want by the Rolling Stones. Today, he is Prime Minister of Pakistan.