The Commonwealth Games at Melbourne was where Saina Nehwal earned her stripes as a shuttler who would challenge the best in the world when she suggested she be fielded in a critical team competition as a 16-year-old and pulled off an upset.
It is at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, where India’s ace champion is in fact absent, that Nehwal has made another statement of intent – that she’s prepared to scale peaks that are higher than the accolade of being a CWG champion.
No one who was present at Delhi’s Siri Fort four years ago can forget the drama and exhilaration of Nehwal clinching the gold medal after a classic counterpunch against Malaysian Mew Choo Wong and leaving the English sulking when they were overtaken by the hosts for a second position finish in the tally of medals.
But India’s standing as a true badminton power, moreover a mature and self-assured one, will come in Glasgow, where with Nehwal out with injury, the rest of the flock will attempt to replicate and even better the tally from the last edition.
The mixed team-event gold must’ve been rather tempting for coach P Gopichand (India won silver last time), alluring enough to even rush Nehwal from a still-healing injury. But the biggest difference between Delhi and Glasgow is in that towering near-6 feet frame of PV Sindhu.
Having risen in stature in the mid-CWG years and already boasting of a World Championship bronze medal, Sindhu can step up to the challenge of defending what is India’s crown in women’s singles, and might well consider it a rite of passage as well as her biggest title. With only three other shuttlers in the Top 25, the CWG is thin on serious challenges, but loaded with an opportunity to flaunt India’s depth in the singles event.
While Nehwal has aced consistency, the 19-year-old Sindhu mixes the fiery with the adventurous. “She’s on and off on the radar of consistency,” is how Gopichand describes it.
At the same Siri Fort this May where Nehwal had lit up the CWG four years ago, Sindhu put up a show, match after match, at this year’s Uber Cup, which was a cross between a Holmes thriller and Houdini’s magic show.
Bringing drama to five thrilling matches, where she would start confidently, then lose her way, and then fight back, Sindhu survived the sweltering intensity of this summer’s inquisitions. “She played some high pressure matches, and showed great physical endurance in back-to-back games,” Gopi says, adding that by the time the individual event starts, Sindhu would’ve played in the team event, and had a solid 10 days to get used to the courts.
There’s Li Michelle of Canada, and Juan Gu of Singapore, but Sindhu’s biggest challenge will come from a very non-Asian opponent — home-girl Kirsty Gilmour. “Sindhu lost to her in a shock defeat last time, but she’s a tricky player,” Gopichand says of one of Europe’s few deceptive players. It’s not so much Gilmour’s achievements, as her awkward game that Sindhu suffered in that hour-long torment in France last October.
Sindhu starts as the clear favourite — like Nehwal did four years ago. Yet she will find stubborn resistance from shuttlers for whom this could be the biggest competition of the year. Those are pitfalls to be mindful of, as is the fact that this is her maiden multi-sport Games. She has a couple of Grand Prix titles, but no shimmer of that all-stakes tournament final and title victory which defines a champion.
With Lee Chong Wei out, and Kashyap always saving his best for the big tournaments with Guru Sai Dutt to back him up, this CWG will be more than about Saina Nehwal. The women’s doubles pairing of Jwala-Ashwini have looked good in the run-up, and can aim for an encore as India chases a team gold amongst other five expected medals. However, for PV Sindhu this could be the essential box to tick with Saina Nehwal having set the gold standard.