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Papa Found It Hard to Watch Me Play, He Would Head Out For a Walk, Saina Nehwal Recounts Her Journey

For Papa, I am still his baby. He calls me Shiny, Tapi, Baccha, writes Saina Nehwal.

For Papa, I am still his baby. He calls me Shiny, Tapi, Baccha, writes Saina Nehwal.

In badminton, Mummy advocates learning every tactic whereas Papa says, ‘Find out what works for you and learn that well,’ writes Saina Nehwal in a new anthology of essays.

Attached as I am to both Abu and Mummy, I am a self-confessed daddy’s girl! In the rural north, there is a saying ‘Pitro mukhi sada sukhi’, which roughly translates to ‘A girl with her father’s face is always happy’. I think I take after my father. For years, Papa has always been by my side, seeing me through my training. I’ve never heard him complain about the physical stress or the financial crunch. But for his quiet and relentless support, I would not have been able to reach this far.

For a long time, I had no idea that my racquets were so expensive. I used to be very careless with them, losing them easily. It was when journalists asked me how I managed without sponsors that I went up to Papa and asked him in turn. I was shocked to hear that he had been borrowing from his provident fund savings to pay for my training and my kit! From the time I started playing, in 1999, until 2004 when I got my first sponsor, Papa paid the bills. The racquets would cost around Rs 14,000 and I would need at least two at any given point. A barrel of shuttles cost a thousand rupees and I would use up some two barrels a day! Apart from the equipment, there were my shoes, clothes, tickets to pay for when we travelled to tournaments—not just for me but also Mummy, who would accompany me—our hotel bills and other incidentals. I would notch up a bill of Rs 50–60,000 a month and Papa would quietly keep paying up without letting on how difficult it was. And for a long time, there was no way of knowing that I would be successful at the game. Thankfully, I started winning at tournaments and his sacrifice was not for nothing.

Where Mummy believes in hard work as the answer to getting what you want from life, Papa is all for finding one’s way around life. In badminton, Mummy advocates learning every tactic whereas Papa says, ‘Find out what works for you and learn that well.’ Mummy focuses on the result and Papa’s philosophy is to work hard and never mind the results. Although both have influenced me, over time, I find myself more inclined towards Papa’s way of thinking. I am less hard on myself these days and do only what I need to do for a good game.

For a long time, Mummy would travel with me, sit in the front row and guide me through the match. She has a knack for saying the right things at the right time and I find her presence very helpful. Papa used to find it hard to watch me play. Even watching me on TV would make him nervous and for a long time, whenever my match was on, he would head out for a walk and stay out until I called. He was always the first one I would call, whether I won or lost. In 2010, when I was headed for the All England Championships, I thought it would be nice to have him come along for a change. It still wasn’t easy for him to watch me play. At first, he would stand outside the court, waiting for some of my teammates to tell him what was happening. But now, when I am on court, I see him in the audience. I can hear him cheering and guiding me, and that makes me smile.

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After that trip, Papa started accompanying me on several tournaments. And it has been a huge support for me to have him around. I am not the friendliest nor the most social person and having my dad with me gives me all the support I need. Earlier, he would be so frustrated seeing my packed suitcases lying around. I used to insist that it was just easier to have them packed and ready to go. And now I see his suitcase lying in wait next to mine! Papa has also shown me how to deal with being a celebrity. His advice was simple—be humble. When journalists come home to interview me, he is always polite to them; when the phone rings, he answers politely and doesn’t brush anyone off. Truth be told, sometimes I think he is more popular with journalists than I am. I don’t enjoy interviews all that much and try to keep them brief. Sometimes, a journalist will call up Papa and ask him for a sound bite, instead of me. And I am quite happy to let him do the talking. Papa also keeps track of all the media coverage. He keeps the paper clippings and loves to read them again and again. And he’ll remind me of how far I have come. I also have a manager now, Manjula, and Papa coordinates my schedule with her. But for him, I’d have no idea what’s happening outside of my game. He spends hours making sure my finances are in order, my schedule is not too messy and my bills are paid.

As you can see, I owe a great deal to Papa. On 1 July 2010, I was invited to the head office of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) where Papa works. I had been made the brand ambassador of ICAR and Papa was so proud. His colleagues have been extremely supportive of him, and me. But for that, it would have been difficult for him to take time out to be with me. In fact, the first time I ever signed an autograph was for Papa’s colleagues. I was ten years old and had won the Under-10 district-level tournament. When I went to Papa’s office, his colleagues said they had read about me in the paper and asked for my autograph. I remember looking at Papa, who nodded, and I signed my name for them. And now, after all these years, I was very happy to be able to give back something, and that I could do this for my papa.

For Papa, I am still his baby. He calls me Shiny, Tapi, Baccha … Sometimes he calls me Abu and I have to remind him that I am Saina, not Abu.

Disclaimer:This excerpt from Big Mistake: An Anthology on Growing Up and Other Tough Stuff has been published with permission of Penguin Random House.

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first published:June 27, 2021, 13:53 IST