Saina Nehwal and Sania Mirza: Leading Indian sports

Saina Nehwal: Badminton. Singles. March 2015. World number 1.
Sania Mirza: Lawn Tennis. Doubles. April 2015. World number 1.

To be the best in the world at anything is an achievement most of us can only dream of. But let’s put this in perspective. 

These two ladies have reached the top of two sports that most Indians don’t care about. Sports that aren’t cricket. Sports where most people cannot name an Indian woman from a previous generation who has even played the sport, let alone be good at it. Sports where even Indian male role models can be counted on one hand. Name five Indians who’ve been in the top 500 in the world in either tennis or badminton. Okay, name ten. It’s not easy, is it?

I can’t imagine the struggle it must have been for both of them. Every sportsperson makes infinite sacrifices in her search for perfection. But that struggle reaches another level when you’re a little girl in India who wants to make a mark in sport. 

Someone I know once told me of a research paper which suggested that the boy to girl ratio in the IITs is so low because families will almost never agree to send their daughters to Kota for a year of coaching. Think about how the society reacts when girls have to travel around the country playing in the under-14 national circuit. 

Yes, she’ll miss school. Yes, she’ll be missing exams. Yes, it will cost money and there is no sponsorship. Yes, it will cost more money if a parent has to accompany her. Yes, she’ll have to wear shorts and skirts. Yes, there will be boys around. Yes, she’ll be staying in a dorm. Yes, she’ll be spending a long time alone with a (almost always male) coach. Yes, this isn’t just a hobby. Yes, she’ll be training in the sun. Yes, she doesn’t care about her complexion. Yes, she’ll be spending a couple of hours in a gym every day. Yes, that means she’ll get muscular. Yes, a fat pay cheque at the end isn’t guaranteed. Yes, she’ll do this again and again and again.

I’m lucky enough to have seen the both of them play. I saw Saina at the All England a couple of years ago. She lost but played with heart and I was proud to be cheering for her. Being a regular at Wimbledon, I’ve seen Sania a couple of times. She’s usually on the outside courts for the initial rounds and it’s amazing how quickly the benches fill up with fellow Indians. When she whacks that ball on the forehand side, it sure stays hit!

You’ve both done so well, ladies, and we are all so very proud. Thank you for this moment of pride. Thank you for not giving up when the days were dark. 

I heard somewhere the other day that since thousands have followed Matt Webb swimming across the English channel, perhaps his biggest achievement wasn’t the fact that he crossed it but the fact that he showed others it could be done. 

So on behalf of all the girls on tennis and badminton courts across the country, thank you for being their Matthew Webb. Thank you for showing them that it can be done.

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