Both on and off court, Nehwal has repeatedly proved that she is a cut above the rest. From defying stereotypes to overcoming injuries, the ace badminton player recounts the incredible journey of moulding herself into the brilliant natural diamond masterpiece that she is today
For someone who now lives and breathes badminton, it feels strange to think that I almost didn’t take up the sport professionally. I was interested in all kinds of sports—and even went on to earn a brown belt in karate—but I never considered playing badminton, despite growing up in a house where both my parents were passionate players. I probably would have ended up pursuing a degree in medicine had my father not been transferred to Hyderabad, a city famous for churning out badminton champions like Pullela Gopichand.
Needless to say, all it took was one month of summer camp as a 10-year-old at Lal Bahadur stadium to fall in love with the game. The rush of adrenaline, the intense competition and unparalleled high of winning a match, propelled me straight into this wonderful world of badminton frenzy. Initially, it was all fun and games—I enjoyed the sweet taste of success, beating boys at a game they thought wasn’t meant for girls. But the competitive spirit in me had been unleashed and I wasn’t ready to let this be another sport I was just good in. I knew I had to excel in it. I had to sparkle.
A Diamond in the Rough
If I was ever unsure about the path I was treading on, my mother made up for all my apprehensions, with her unquestionable confidence in me. “You’ll bring home an Olympic medal someday, I just know it,” she would say, while I nervously laughed in an attempt to brush off the thought that would fill me up with secret excitement. She had seen in me an obstinate desire to constantly challenge myself, to push boundaries and relentlessly chase goals that I had set for myself.
She saw me as a diamond in the rough and was only too eager to help me shine with all my brilliance.
Her trusted ally was my father, and together they forged an off-court partnership that could make this dream of making me an Olympic medallist possible.
It Takes a Diamond to Shape Another
For me the high of winning was enough to keep me going, to aim higher and give wings to my dreams. But being a badminton player is a very expensive dream to pursue. When I started training I didn’t know how it financially drained my parents, all I knew was that I was always provided with the best gear, rackets and shoes when I needed it. The training process itself commanded dogged commitment and rigorous routines. My parents and I would travel 25 km to the stadium and back for sessions that started as early as 4 am. The schedules would get so tedious that my father bought a house closer to the stadium just to make it easier for me to balance training with my studies. We worked together as ‘Team Saina’ and it was this unbreakable bond between us that powered us through the odds, while we tip-toed around strict time-tables and juggled responsibilities, just so that I could bag bronze at the London Olympics in 2012.
I’ve always held my victories and losses on the court very close to my heart and I believe no one, not my fans nor my detractors, can that take away from me. I think this what makes me a cut above the rest—I know I am a champion and I am willing to go the extra mile for it. My father realises this too and shows his support in astonishing ways. I remember this incident where I was fascinated by a platinum natural diamond ring in an airport store on my way back from the Asian Games in 2018, just after I had won a bronze medal. My father was quick to catch the glimmer of excitement in my eyes and immediately decided to gift it to me as an ode to my inner strength and resilience. He wanted me to shine on like an everlasting diamond, and this precious ring was his own little way of telling me so.
A Perfect Match
I’ve been eternally grateful for all that the badminton court has given me but finding love has been the most unexpected and wholesome part of this incredible journey. A lot of people ask me how it feels to be married to my best friend and fellow shuttler Parupalli Kashyap, and I love to reiterate that it is as thrilling as the game itself. Badminton is a sport that requires a lot of individual, unwavering focus, but after my husband came into my life I’ve known the real meaning of someone always having my back.
He knows me well enough to know that I am not one for big gestures, which is evident in the stunning yet demure natural diamond engagement ring that he gifted me. It’s a symbol of our diamond-strong love which is capable of withstanding the pressures of life as well as those of the game. And together we make a team that’s durable—motivating, laughing, disciplining and supporting each other through our ups and downs.
In many ways, our journey together has been like that of a natural diamond—emerging strongly from our years of struggle to shine bright.
He’s always by my side, cheering me on and celebrating even the smallest of my wins. It’s why he understands every move I make and can counsel me through my losses and injuries, be the confidante and the comforter. In the end, it is the sport that brought us together and still keeps the spark alive.