New Delhi: It has been an eventful year for India's celebrated midfielder Sardar Singh. After a see-saw first eight months on and off the field, the former captain last month became only the second hockey player to receive country's highest sporting honour, the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, after Dhanraj Pillay.
The 31-year-old received the award from President Ram Nath Kovind on August 29, the birth anniversary of hockey legend Major Dhyan Chand. India celebrate the day as National Sports Day in honour of the hockey wizard.
Reliving the moment when he first got a call from an unknown number to share the news that he had been nominated for the prestigious award, Sardar said, it was indeed "a very different feeling."
At that time, he was at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre in Bengaluru, attending the national hockey camp.
“It was a very different feeling. I will remember it for the rest of my life and immediately shared the news with my family.
“Ours is a very simple family. They celebrate my achievements in their own way. But this (Khel Ratna) added an expression or two to their happiness,” he told Zee Media in an interview.
Sardar, along with fellow Khel Ratna awardee Paralympian Devendra Jhajharia, starred in the glittering ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, where 17 Arjuna Awardees were also honoured, besides the recipients of the Dronacharya and Dhyanchand Award.
Sardar shared his conversation with the President at the time of receiving the award and how he found himself at loss of words.
“Aap ka naam Sardar hai. Pata hai iska matlab kya hota hai? (your name is Sardar. Do you know what does it mean?” the President asked Sardar during their conversation at the awards ceremony held at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
“I could just reply with a ‘yes’,” he said.
“You have served the country like your name, done us proud,” the President replied to Sardar’s ‘yes’.
Sardar said he "feel(s) an increased sense of responsibility after getting the Khel Ratna," but also admitted that “there’s a different confidence since receiving the award, a positive energy.”
Hockey being one of the most physically demanding sports, it gets difficult to cope with the demands on the other side of 30, but Sardar stays hopeful to extend his career to Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
And he is taking inspiration from Aussie great Jamie Dwyer, who carried on till 37, and also tennis legend Roger Federer, who has come back strong at the age of 36 to take his Grand Slams trophy count to 19.
“My recovery time has to improve if I need to stay injury free. That means I will have to pick and choose tournaments to get to Tokyo Olympics in 2020,” the 2014 Asian Games gold medallist said.
“Once past 30, you have to focus more. The more you care about your body, it will support you more. It depends on you,” Sardar added.
But he is well aware of the fact that his place in the team will be up for grabs if he isn't fit and can't perform at the standards he sets for himself. And the pressure from young crop will always keep veterans like Sardar on their toes.
“It (the body) feels good. The numbers on my fitness tests are fine, because I am catering to the changing requirements of my body. It’s responding,” he said before taking a flight to Bengaluru for the Asia Cup camp. "If it doesn't, I will be the first to admit."