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Will Saina and shuttlers declare gold on return from London?

July 23, 2012 15:13 IST

The Badminton Association of India too would hope Saina has gold to declare when she lands at Delhi airport after the Olympics, for that would establish the BAI as a soothsayer of sorts, writes TS Sudhir

As you read this, the Indian badminton team is on its way to the Hyderabad airport, to fly to Delhi en route London. It is a very different Indian squad that is taking off to the Olympics this time. The players, perhaps for the first time since badminton was introduced in 1992 at the Barcelona Games, are not travelling as tourists. At least one medal, and perhaps even two, are expected from the five players who will represent India in London. 

The players haven't been busy only packing their bags. Far from it. Till Monday morning, they have been finetuning different aspects of their game with coach Pullela Gopichand at his badminton academy. Like yesterday, when on a quiet Sunday afternoon, Saina Nehwal and Gopi spent an hour on court. Gopi choosing the solitude to part with some precious last-minute guru mantras. And called her in again twice for two one-hour sessions today, to check if the programme had been loaded properly into Saina's mental software.

Fortunately, things have been falling into place for the Indian badminton team. Physio Kiran is finally travelling with the team, after Gopi expressed concern that his absence due to lack of accreditation could affect the team. "Most players, including Saina, do not know how to tape their ankle or thigh before a match. Which is why Kiran is so important, apart from how he takes care of them before and after a match. He now has been given day passes for the stadium and the training venue,'' said Gopi. 

The team will be arriving at the Olympics Village on Tuesday afternoon, two days after the Indian flag was hoisted at the village. But since the Village is a 90-minute drive from Wembley arena, the venue of the badminton matches, the team (as are badminton teams from other countries) will be staying at the Wembley Plaza, a hotel close by. The team will have no time to recover from the jet lag as the first slot to practise is between 7 and 8 pm on Tuesday, followed by two hour-long sessions on the 25th afternoon and 26th morning. The shuttlers will not be part of the opening ceremony on 27th as their matches begin the following day.

Dronacharya award winner and Gopi's coach, SM Arif, however, is concerned if the team is travelling to London too late. "The Chinese and the Malaysians have been there for the last week or so and this period would have helped them acclimatise to the conditions better,'' he reasons.

Gopi says, "Yes, the Malaysians have been in London since July 17 with 12 practice partners. Unless we get that number of quality sparring partners, it does not make sense to travel early. The Chinese are the top three in women's singles and they have taken three more players for sparring with them. Who do Saina or Kashyap play with?''

Gopi instead is going armed with a dossier on each of the players and pairs, Saina, Kashyap, Jwala-Diju and Jwala-Ashwini, are likely to play against. "The preparations in London begin once we know of the draw on Monday. We will try to simulate the match situation during training,'' he says. 

Arif recalls that he saw Saina in action for the first time as a 10-year-old in 2000 and predicted that "in two years, she will be a world beater because of her attitude''. Having seen his words come true, Arif is confident of Saina's medal chances in London. 

"The format is such that she has a very good chance to reach the semis, which will assure her of a medal. After that how she performs will determine if she wins a gold or a silver. My only advice to Saina would be not to come under pressure because of the Olympics stage,'' he says. 

The Badminton Association of India too would hope Saina has gold to declare when she lands at Delhi airport after the Olympics. For that would establish the BAI as a soothsayer of sorts. In 2002, at the Guntur under-19 nationals, in recognition of Saina's talent, the organisers had greeted her with a banner that read: 'Go for Gold 2012 Olympics'.

Let the Gold Rush begin! 

T S Sudhir is the author of Saina Nehwal: An Inspirational Biography, released in July 2012
TS Sudhir in Hyderabad