“Yes, training away from Hyderabad in Bengaluru was a bold step. But you have to understand, I’ll do anything to improve my game. I lost in five World Championship quarterfinals and that hurt. I had to do something.”
For connoisseurs of gossip and apostles of intrigue , that, coming from Saina Nehwal, is a pin-to-the-bubble after the 24-year-old beat Japanese Akane Yamaguchi 21-12, 22-20 to clinch the China Open three months after the exit from the Worlds. Nehwal had packed her bags and rolled up all the emotional baggage, after returning quite downbeat from Denmark’s World Championship this August and took the next available train to Bangalore.
That, she replaced P Gopichand with Vimal Kumar, ought to have been declared a “bold step”, which implied leaving the comfort zone and seeking answers, any answer, every answer, to why she kept losing in the quarters of the World Championship.
“She’d been struggling for two years after Olympics, and the jinx was bothering her too much,” father Harvir Singh says. Like a dozen years ago when her mother shepherded her child to Gopichand’s academy because she believed he’d help her beyond what SM Arif taught her, Usharani Nehwal once again decided she’d help Saina settle down at Bangalore’s Padukone Academy while she rebooted her gameunder Vimal Kumar and Prakash Padukone’s guidance.
“Now, they both live at the academy where her mother takes care of her food and clothes and helps with massages. Her maternal grandmother is in Hyderabad, so as a family we decided I’d stay back and take care of her,” the father says.
Saina Nehwal had begun to believe her game was stagnating, the title wins were drying up, and the World title was eluding her cruelly. So never one to let things drift, she was emboldened to make the move after Vimal bounced a few new ideas off her, suggesting fresh ideas against opponents who had worked her out.
On Sunday at the China Open, Nehwal rolled out a confident retort to upstart Yamaguchi’s challenge, to win her 8th Super Series title – third top-rung Premier event – and became the first non-Chinese in a decade after Malaysian Mew Choo Wong to win the China Open.
If she was making a point, it was more proving to herself that she was still top of her game, rather than anything snidely directed towards her former coach.
Playing the final against the 17-year-old Japanese, who has bullied and harried quite a few established names with her hustling style and frenetic speed, Nehwal remained ruthlessly focussed on denying her opponent any chance to take control. “Beating three Chinese had a positive impact on her psyche, but she didn’t allow Yamaaguchi the early leeway which the Japanese usually grabs and never lets go,” Vimal Kumar said.
Bossing the first game deprived her tiring rival of the oxygen she uses to become combustible in the rest of the match, and Nehwal moved around deftly, efficient at the net and unyielding to the back-court even as she played an awkward length to the diminutive Japanese teenager.
Nehwal’s deceptive game at the net is looking sharper than ever, and she has been playing some brilliantly disguised drop-shots as well as varying the angles on her slices – both in the final and the semis against the tall Li Xin.
Of her last 9 defeats in international tournaments, 8 have come against the Chinese — either Shixian Wang (3 – French, Denmark, All England), Yihan Wang (2 – India, Swiss Open), Li Xuerui (2 – Worlds, Indonesia) or the beanpole Yao Xue in her first meet of 2014 at Malaysia. “I’m satisfied with how I’m playing. My speed was good and my drops were up to the mark. Every aspect of the game felt right today,” she’d said after the semis, glad that her speed when playing the Chinese was faster.
Against the Japanese, Nehwal only needed tactical poise. “Technically, she’s now countering the Chinese in the last few tournaments. There’s more deceptive clears from back of court and judicious smashes to the lines. Most importantly, she’s varying her pace,” Vimal said.
CHANGING THE PACE
The rut that Nehwal’d been stuck in was also about the monotony of the pace she played at throughout a match. “That’s the one thing we’ve worked on. You can’t play at one pace and just hope to bulldoze – hit through and win against every player. She was losing from winning positions because you can’t sustain the pace of rallies. Now she’s changing it,” he added.
The most noticeable change is how she pushed Chinese to the corners with cross smashes and drops, and how she had variety in deception when closing out matches since that’s where she was being read and caught out like against Yamaguchi, though bigger tests await.
The environment at Bangalore has also helped. “Here we’re only looking at juniors, so we thought we could give her the kind of attention and individual time she wanted. Nothing very dramatic, we just spoke of tactically applying which was all that was required. For top players, monotony can set in, and they go through phases in their career. Even Gopi was training with us, and then decided to try new things at SAI. In India we get sentimental about this, but you should applaud her willingness to make changes so late in her career and the hunger to improve,” he said, urging that the change in coach not be made an issue of loyalty.
While Nehwal is heading into a low-key season with no big events now and this win will settle her nerves about the big decision, the coach is elated at how it’s turned out. “Her work ethic is great, she’s prepared to learn and work hard. She stays at the academy, and there’s no complaints of food or how basic the room is. She’s always wanting to learn new things, and it’s a delight for a coach,” Vimal says.
Though he’s aware that much work needs to go into strengthening and conditioning, the new team of physios has managed to put one thing across.
“We’re in constant touch with Hyderabad physios and just tweaking things here and there, but we’re focussing on getting her to finish matches faster and making her smashes more powerful because recovery’s tougher now that she’s older,” Dr Nikhil Latey, head of sports science and rehab at Olympic Gold Quest, says. The plan is to get her match time down by 10 minutes at least, which means not dragging it to the deciders.
Wearing her Peter Pan collared shirts and butterfly sleeves while lifting the China Open, Saina Nehwal doesn’t look too different from when she trained at Hyderabad. Neither does her basic game that was moulded by Gopichand to assert herself and dominate opponents. Glimpses of some sublime wristwork peeking out of that aggressive smashing, are hardly incongruous, merely welcome variations.