New Delhi: They come from the same academy, Pullela Gopichand’s in Hyderabad. But how much else do headline-makers Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu have in common?
Clearly, they don’t appear to be the best of friends as was evident in their perfunctory handshake at the end of their Indian Badminton League final clash on Saturday.
Is it just the intense competitive nature of both which has given the impression of frostiness between them? Or, is there really more substance to all the talk about their rivalry, on and off the court?
Indian badminton’s reigning queen greeted the pretender to her throne in a cool, formal way after thrashing the World Championships bronze medallist 21-15, 21-7. This was Saina’s second win over Sindhu in three weeks, in as many matches.
Saina’s smile perhaps said a lot that day. “Too much was read into Saina’s return from the World Championship empty handed,” said a badminton official from Hyderabad. “Some felt Saina was history and Sindhu was now the rising star. Saina was determined to prove them wrong.”
Both Saina and Sindhu have remained politically correct whenever they spoke about each other. But some officials have noted an underlying sense of rivalry. One claimed that even Gopichand is aware that things have changed in the past few months.
“Both the girls train at Gopichand’s academy, but contrary to popular belief they are not exactly sparring partners,” said another official. “While Gopi coaches Sindhu early in the morning, Saina starts training a couple of hours later.
“If you have noticed, Gopi has always been diplomatic while commenting on their matches. Once, he even jokingly said that he would stay far away from the stadium when the two girls take on each other. Perhaps, he does not want any trouble,” the official added.
But insiders in the badminton circuit deny that their relationship is frosty. “They may not be great friends, but I don’t think there is any ill-feeling. Moreover, Saina is a far more matured and established shuttler. Sindhu, on the other hand, has still a long way to go,” said eight-time national champion Madhumita Bisht.
Indian badminton had seen great rivalries in the past — Trilok Nath Seth versus Nandu Natekar in the 1950s, Nandu Natekar versus Suresh Goel in the 1960s, Madhumita Bisht versus Ami Ghia in the 1980s. But none of these reached international standards.
The Ami-Madhumita rivalry was legendary as they faced each other six times in the national championships finals. Yet, according to Ami, whose highest career ranking was a commendable world No. 7, she and Madhumita are still best of friends.
“It is too early to say there is rivalry between Saina and Sindhu. They have only played two matches so far. But there is a chance it could grow into a healthy international rivalry. India never had two women players in the top 10. It would help Indian badminton grow,” said Dev Sukumar, author and badminton historian.
Gopichand said he was thrilled with Saina’s success in the IBL. “Saina didn’t do too well in the circuit this year, but I was not perturbed. I knew she would recover. After all, she is only 23,” he said. On Sindhu, the coach only said he wanted her to be more consistent.
Saina said her matches against Sindhu were normal outings. “Actually the media and the public have hyped up our matches. Otherwise we play each other regularly at the academy.
“But since this match (final) was so talked about, I felt a bit of pressure and it became a little tight in the beginning,” Saina said after the match.
A Badminton Association of India (BAI) official, however, put it in the right perspective. “Don’t get deceived by what the players and the coaches say. The game these days is all about rankings and prize money. There is no place for niceties.”