It can safely be said that Saina Nehwal is back in good nick if she’s beaten two Chinese shuttlers in one week of tournament-play. On Saturday, the 24-year-old ground out a hard-fought 21-19, 16-21, 21-15 win over World No. 2 Shixian Wang just three days after waging a 75-minute marathon battle against Sun Yu. The Indian world No. 8 will line up for her eighth Super Series final and in line for her seventh title, at The Star Australian Badminton Open in Sydney.
Nehwal had beaten a Chinese opponent only once during a barren 2013.
Nehwal’s last Chinese scalp – Xuang Deng, a player outside the top-50 – had come six months ago and she had lost to higher-ranked Chinese opponents in six consecutive matches, before defeating Sun in Round 1 in Australia. Incidentally, the last top-10 Chinese shuttler Nehwal got past was Shixian, a good 15 months ago.
Nehwal’s progress in tournaments have had a distinct road-bump as she was routinely stopped by Chinese players in 7 of her last 11 tournaments, denying her a chance to appear in the medal rounds, which reflected in her rankings. More than a third of her losses (9 of 25) since she last made a Super Series Final in France in October 2012, had come against the Chinese, making it the most vulnerable period of her career. At the States Sports Centre in Sydney, Nehwal finally stemmed the tide in typically attritional fashion.
The Indian, seeded sixth, has traded some high-octane victories against Shixian, a brutally persistent rally player in the older mould of Chinese players. Slow shuttles bring Shixian’s torturous game into sharp relief and Saturday was no different. She snapped at Nehwal’s heels in the opening game till 19-all and threatened to steal the momentum in the second.
Nehwal employed her biggest weapon against the Chinese — her refined net-game. “It was really difficult against Shixian. But I was well prepared for the long match. A lot of stamina is required but I like these extended matches. I am fit,” Nehwal said, insisting her fitness would allow her to push for the title, unlike in the past one year.
“She used what is called a jhatka — a ‘holding’ shot — in India, in the first game. It’s different from a double-action shot. Mainly, she had enough time to ‘hold’ it for a split second, so she could force the opponent into indecision on where it would be hit,” a leading BWF expert said. “Saina played this from close to the floor and it’s the first time we’ve seen her do that.”
While Shixian lacks a finishing stroke, Nehwal’s 5-3 head-to-head against her proves that the Indian has regained her tactical advantage and some of her confidence that had taken a beating after consistent losing to the world’s most dominant players. Nehwal has now won the last four of her five matches against Shixian that have crossed the 70-minute mark and after prevailing in a tricky match against Sun Yu earlier, looks fit as a fiddle.
“It’s not just the confidence from beating the Chinese, she has shrugged off her injuries and is moving well. That’s all-important to Saina,” says coach Vimal Kumar, who sees her collecting a few titles in the coming months.