The dominant narrative surrounding Saina Nehwal may be all about heroic tales, where she slays Chinese dragons and climbs podiums, but the nuts and bolts of her succesful career as India’s ace badminton player lie in the unglamorous victories she scores over unfancied, lower-ranked, non-Chinese opponents. Spain’s World No. 11 Carolina Marin, who suffered a 21-18, 21-11 defeat on Sunday, was one such opponent and the 24-year-old Indian claimed The Star Australian Badminton Open in Sydney, her seventh Super Series title from nine finals.
Overcoming blisters on her toes that troubled had her in the semis, Nehwal lifted her first Super Series title in 20 months to announce her return from the fringes where she had been drifting for the whole of 2013 after the highs of Olympic success in 2012. Nehwal stands apart from the crowd of Indian shuttlers known for not putting opponents away in matches they are favoured to win. She has been known to pounce on opportunities — described by her coach as ‘hunger’ and by fans as ‘killer instinct’. Nehwal brought her ruthlessness to the court to down a fast-improving player, Europe’s best, known for her uninhibited aggression.
Nehwal asserted herself with early leads in both games 5-2 in the opener and 3-1 in the second, and did not fall back from there to allow the Spaniard an opening, despite the left-hander’s attempts to make her steep attack and southpaw angles count.
UNDER MARIN’S SKIN
When Marin threatened to snap that gap at 17-19 with much fist-pumping, Nehwal raced to take the first-game lead and then bared her fangs to bring her opponent to the verge of tears.
Heading into the second set, Nehwal celebrated every smash, drop and net-winner, as well as Marin’s errors, with such exaggerated menace that she got under Marin’s skin. If the Spaniard had thought she could roar, shriek and browbeat the Indian, Nehwal showed she could out-roar and out-shriek her, while lording at the net.
Nehwal was once guilty of celebrating a point even while the shuttle was still in play, and while Marin cribbed to the chair, all that achieved was magnifying her own vulnerability. Nehwal, sensing an open wound, drove the knife right in for 8 straight points to puncture any further challenge.
Cautious coming into the final, Nehwal has not stayed in the Top 10 for six years on the back of bravado. She has taught her compatriots, who’ve struggled to catch a break on the Super Series circuit, just how much she possesses of the sport’s least attractive X-factor — consistency.
Just as well, it was June. “Most of my wins are in June only!” she said, after pocketing a cheque of $56,250.
Nehwal has won 5 of her 7 titles around this time of year. Her father Harveer recalls how it all started in June 1999, when she was picked for a year-long training in Hyderabad.
“Ten days later, we went to Tirupati,” he recalls. It wasn’t the temple steps the Nehwals were hiking upto, but the steep challenge of the Andhra Pradesh Sub-junior State Championship. “She did well and her career took off from there. Philippines — her first title — came in May-end and all three Indonesian crowns have come in June. When she left, this was playing on her mind.”
Nehwal also returned to a country, where she earned her first chance during the 2006 Commonwealth Games. “She was sitting next to me, watching Aparna Popat in some discomfort against English defending champion Tracey Hallam,” recalls the then India coach Vimal Kumar. “She told me ‘if given a chance, I can beat her’. She was confident, not arrogant. She went on to help India win the team championships and beat Hallam.”
The CWG performance was at the back of her mind. “In 2006 in Melbourne, we won the bronze medal and I was given a chance over Aparna.” In Sydney 2014, Nehwal made the most of another chance — a modest draw and her own fine form — as she displayed the hunger in grabbing the title from Carolina Marin.