The trauma of 2011 is a thing of the past for Saina Nehwal as she attempts to break the Chinese monopoly at All England Championship this week and the Olympics later. The ace shuttler speaks to Shivani Naik about the darkest phase of her life that saw her temporarily drifting away from long-time coach Gopichand while also nursing a career-threatening ankle injury
Her win-loss record was looking skewed,tilting speedily towards the negative. The number of first and second round losses was mounting. The Chinese didnt look particularly worried coming up against her,like they had in 2010.
Their coach Zhang Ning,twice badminton womens singles champion at the Olympics,strutted around,wearing the haughty calm of an elocution teacher whose pupils deliver in faultless diction,while the lone rival challenger stutters and fumbles with her prosaic lines.
Whats more,upstarts from Korea and Japan,Thailand and Taipei had started gleefully counting Saina Nehwal,amongst their Top 5 scalps.
She was clinging on bravely to her ranking,but the headlines hailing her success the previous year had gulped down their grandeur,and at the first blush of any ouster in 2011,swiftly turned a shade pessimistic.
The worst-case scenarios were playing out: she had fought with her coach after a sulk and stomp,and grievously stopped communicating. Her ankle acted up,unsettling the fulcrum of her on-court movements.
In the whirlwind of her shuttle world,fast spiralling out of control,Saina Nehwal bitterly missed normalcy: a congenial cup of tea.
For as long as she can remember at the Gopichand Academy,the unwritten routine beyond the strict and scrupulously followed training regimen,comprised chai and chatter. It started with Nehwal and her training-mates wrapping up many sets of multi-shuttle-feeding,with a quiet limber-down and then proceeded to the upper floor cafeteria,with noisy banter buzzing all the way.
Her group all guys,as Nehwal stopped sparring with girls years ago would then order fresh dosas and tea,served in thick,durable,plain white china.
Trouble in paradise
All of that had stopped or gotten awkward,at any rate after Nehwal tiffed with Gopi in late-December-January of 2010-11 to sign up an affiliate coach,and started training in a corner-court. The darkest period in her young career,had also turned deafeningly quiet. The toughest times werent when I was losing to the Chinese or lesser matches to others. It was when I trained alone. I was not able to think..or concentrate…I really wanted to go back to training with them all,like before, Saina Nehwal says in broken-sentences,considerably calmer now,a year after the dam-walls burst. Sipping chai,having climbed the cafeteria stairs again with her boisterous buddies and reunited with the coach just in time for the final stretch to the London Olympics,Nehwal is now ready to tackle the daunting Chinese menace that has cost her three title-finals in her downturn year.
The reasons for the rift,Nehwal refuses to dwell on,calling it a muddled period. What compounded matters was her lack of patience in dealing with an ankle injury,the first major setback the ever-fit Nehwal had suffered. It was the most difficult phase of my life. I went to Gopi sir and said Im sorry,and it was my mistake. Mostly I thought I wasnt improving my game and couldnt cope with the plateau after the stunning 2010. I chose the wrong thing. Hes been training me for 7 years,and maybe I should have been more patient. It was childish. Thank god I chose to do the right thing in the end, she says with typical candour as she resumed training with the former All England champ again.
Miraculously,the turmoil didnt show on her world-ranking,which at worst touched No.6 last year,before settling on No.4,managing four final appearances. Id wonder if it had been such a bad year after making 4 finals. If Id won those 3 others (she won the Swiss Open GP),converted chances into titles,it would have been different. It is very tough to win titles, she says.
And in the Olympics qualifying year,the circuit gets even more combative. It was expected as London neared but the pace at which it happened was overwhelming. Everyones training hard not just the Number 1,2 and 3 the Chinese.
Suddenly,it became plain that German Juliane Schenk leapt a notch higher,tweaking her jump to power her smash,or that Taipeis Shao Chieh Cheng and Tai Tzu Ying were summoning half-smashes and tricky pushes to harry her or that Koreans Sung Ji Hyun and Bae Youn Joo had rustled up games and attitudes to take on the Chinese.
In Hong Kong last December,a year after her last Super Series title,it was the seasoned Danish Tine Baum who announced with her clinical decimation of Nehwal in the quarters that the Europeans would defend their home turf when the Olympics reached London. Everyone was finding good strokes. They had nothing to fear when they played me. I was low on fitness,had limited strokes,a reputation to defend and had in a silly fit fought with my coach, she recalls. Repeated failings against lower ranked shuttlers pointed to a few steps taken backward.
Still,what continued to sting,were the defeats in tournament finals to the Chinese. Thrice. First in Indonesia and then at China,Nehwal ran into the tall Chinese Yihan Wang and lost in three games. I was up in both games,but small mistakes cost me, she says. But I found a lot of areas where I could catch up. Shes a world champion,but there are particular areas where I can avoid being trapped. She has sharp strokes,but still needs to work hard to convert them to points. Ill find a away around,the days not too far, she promises.
World No. 2 Xin Wang has hassled the Indian with her cross-shots,tosses and pushes that keep Nehwal away from the net while others like Shixian Wang (No 3) and Yanjiao (No 5) who sandwich Nehwal in the rankings,simply mask their weaker strokes with long rallies something the Hyderabadi herself is warming to. Liu Xin believes in torturing through defensive play,and the list goes on,and gets revised at an alarming pace. Its mind-boggling to keep track of them all. Ive tried hard-core strategising after video analysis,but it is tough to execute. Stringing it together week after week against that army gets confusing. Im not the only one,all players are trying to crack that code. Sometimes I just feel like laughing, she says.
Laughter,the best medicine
In fact,Nehwal laughed hysterically when she went down to World No 6 Xuerui Li,with the Chinese girls sharp strokes and blistering pace dumping her out in the 2nd round of the French Open. Those would be her most unromantic 48 minutes in Paris,when she lost 21-18,30-29.
I was 18-14 up,then 19-17 with 5-6 game points. I lost that game. Then it went neck-to-neck right up to 29-all. I lifted the shuttle from midcourt and she blindly hit and won! You are sad but you laugh at yourself and the situation. In retrospect,such matches give you confidence. Next time Ill be ready, she vows.
In fact I beat back most girls Id lost to,save the Chinese. So I dont leave many scores unsettled, she says. I finished 2011 well with the SS Finals; the strokes,speed and fitness are improving, she says.
She confesses in her worst phase she would go home and cry often. My parents were tired by end of it. One day my mother screamed: Just stop crying,its so not like Saina Nehwal.
Nehwal insists that the poor period of performance didnt fill her with self-doubt not even the recurring nightmares of losses against Chinese. I never think I will not be able to beat A,B or C, she says. Its more like W,X,Y,Zs of Wang,Xin,Yihan or Zu.
If I lose on court,I cant stop till I find my solutions on court. So,there are no movies,mindless social networking,telethons or retail therapy as distractions. I hardly have friends. My mothers a fighter. If I dont play well,she scolds, she adds. Nehwal appreciates her mums honesty that helps weed out flattery that grows around famous feet like hers. She tells me where I lack,and when Im lazy. On Sundays,she lets me sleep.
Having lost to the multi-pronged attack last year,Nehwal is now ready to look beyond her own career. Theres PV Sindhu in India whos good but just two of us (Sindhu) in Top 30 wont make a difference. You need 30-40 strong players like in China, she says,stressing that the badminton powerhouse plays the individual sport with team tactics,almost ganging up against the rest of the world.
Back to the immediate future,Saina Nehwal heads to the All England this year with challenges that shell need to confront by herself. If you ask me how I feel about Olympics and England Im just scared. I didnt play the World Championships well there. The courts are slow; half smashes and varying the pace will be key. But for the Olympics,Ill be confident only if Im well-prepared thats always been the case when I succeed, she says. The Indian starts against a qualifier,and could run into Carolina Marin,the Spanish sensation adamant on challenging the Asians. Theres the lowest-ranked Chinese (at No7) a possible opponent in the quarters,making this one of the easier draws on paper. Still,as has happened many times,the Chinese could be the only ones left at the business end of the premier super series Meet at Birmingham.
The Olympics,with a limit on the number of Chinese,seem less intimidating. But the rest of the world wasnt napping when Nehwal had a dip-year,as the Beijing quarterfinalist herself will remind you,clutching tightly onto the tea cup handle at the Gopichand academy a firm reassurance in times when storms are gathering outside teacups.