Saina Nehwal had been in the world’s Top 10 ranking list for 369 weeks before she dropped down to No. 11 this Thursday. Turn that number over in your head a few times: 7 years, one month and week.
There was no proverbial itch — but a full blown crack in the knee bone that snapped this run of seven years and 10 Super Series titles. It was bookended — almost — by the Beijing and Rio Olympics, and included a medal at London Games, apart from a Commonwealth Games gold in Delhi and a World Championship silver at one of the 26-year-old’s most prolific venues — Indonesia.
On Friday, there was one lady sitting at the court-corner opposite Nehwal during her quarterfinal battle at Hong Kong who had been intimately privy to the first rush of success during the rise of this Indian phenomenon called Saina Nehwal.
Coach to Nehwal’s opponent on the day Cheung Ngan Yi, the 40-year-old watched with unreal equanimity as her ward and the Indian took the home crowd through a classic roller-coaster.
The home supporters are unlikely to forget the fightback of their young shuttler Cheung, an elastic band on the Hong Kong Coliseum court, diving away and playing out of her skin hoping to go deep into the weekend contest, and managing to win 21-8, 18-21, 21-19. But they were appreciative of the opponent who fell by the wayside this week at the end of the 1 hour 11 minute gruel. Coach Chen Wang smiled just a little, taking it all in.
At the Beijing Games in 2008, Chen Wang was seeded fourth, had just thrashed a Slovakian in her opener and was challenging the top two mainland Chinese Zhang Ning and Xie Xingfang for the title.
A gold winner at Junior World Championships, Asian Games and Asian Championships (which at times can get tougher than Olympics) Chen Wang had come second best only to the Chinese in the last Olympics and at the Worlds just before the Beijing Games.
Representing Hong Kong-China proudly, Beijing was to be her last shot at the big medal. Except, she ran into Saina Nehwal, an Indian teenager in a hurry to stamp her might on the game, losing to the 19-year-old in three sets in the quarterfinals.
She was the first of many Wangs that Nehwal pushed aside over the next few years. Chen would head home to the Hong Kong Super Series later that same November and pick her last title.
On Friday, she sat inscrutable guiding along her charge, the young Cheung, as she brought to a skidding halt Saina Nehwal’s attempts at re-entering that rarefied zone of Top 10s and tournament semifinals. Nehwal’s fighting grit is legendary, and Cheung matched her in every sense of the dramatic face off.
Indians were keen on watching Nehwal go head on against the country’s darling and Olympic runner up PV Sindhu, but the anticipation ended when the original fighter couldn’t keep up her end of the bargain after Sindhu had scrambled into the Last 4. Still, the quarterfinal was pretty climatic for the anti-climax.
Nehwal had started disastrously, with not even a hint of a take-off in the opener which she lost 21-8.
Coming off successive three-setters in only her second meet after her return from surgery, she didn’t look in the best of shapes, but the pickled experience was releasing flavours of bygone dominance – the crosscourt whipped smashes, the flicked flat strokes that found their angles, the sliced drops hit with the edge of racquet at 90 degrees and the fire intact when pushed by the line calls.
At one point in the mid-set, the review challenge would justly alter a 17-15 score to 16-16 after she’d scored 4 straight point surges twice, and it would fire her up so much that she propelled herself quick-burning the fumes she was running on. She revved up the pace of the rallies, her aggression piggybacking as she pumped her fist and let out feral cries to push the match into a decider.
Nehwal would lead 9-4 in the third, but Cheung had a wise mind guiding her through what is essentially a high-frenzy explosive game which under the stern eye of Chen Wang never lost its direction. Cheung has good shots from the back of court and some deceptive drops, as well as scorching pace when she rushes the net to dictate her strokes.
It was all too much, too soon for Nehwal in only her second week on return – fourth match after three weeks of training on court.
“The last two matches were very tiring. I pushed, but it was too tough for me today,” she told the BWF website after the match. Not the sharpest at the nets owing to her leaden movements and breathing heavy, Nehwal craved that lung power to push her through. She’d rustle up 6 straight points to come back from 11-18 down – relying on her will power and experience making Cheung scurry around.
But against a compulsive retriever who could pack in her strokes, it was never going to be enough, as she watched the train leave the platform.
“She was a bit more alert in the end. I was trying to get my breath back, and she was pushing hard. I had the feeling I could’ve won, but it’s not easy when you’re not fit,” she told the BWF.
Saina’ll take heart from the fact that her leg is holding up, and it’s a matter of regaining leg strength and stamina, as her coach Vimal Kumar says.
She echoed him, adding, “I’m not disappointed with the loss. Could have played semis – but when your condition is not good, you can’t expect too much,” she added.
The Olympic years have been eventful for Saina Nehwal from swatting aside Ukrainian Larysa Gryga in Beijing 2008 to going down to an unknown Ukrainian at Rio. Chen Wang resurfaced from the slice of history that was the Indian’s first success at the Olympics, and watched the beginning of another chapter in Saina Nehwal’s journey unfold. She’d have noted that the fight’s not gone out of this one.