It was one of the earliest things, P Gopichand remembers his ward Saina Nehwal talking compellingly about — making it to the top 10 of the world. Her power game held promise even in her early teens, but when the youngster spoke of her top 10 aspirations with all the seriousness and conviction of a driven adult, he knew there’d never be a shortfall of effort here.
So, even as Gopi advises his charge to not deem No 10 any differently from a No 11 — it’s only in the mind and how a player takes it, since it’s a host of good performances that lead up to the 10, he states — he acknowledges that Nehwal has managed to enter the ‘elite club’ she always dreamt of.
Gopi will applaud heartily, but as coach, the Hyderabadi preaches caution not just against the nine women currently better than Nehwal, but also those from 11 to 15, whose games can be rated at almost the same level. “Rankings will take care of themselves. She’ll have to set her targets as consistent semi-finals and finals of the biggest tournaments, and it will be very tough, because she has to also withstand pressure from those ranked just under her, even as she pushes up her own gears,” he says.
Still, Gopi believes that while top-ranked Hong Kong’s Mi Zhou, who Saina has lost to three times in a row, appears a rung too high, Nehwal can start at 50-50 odds against at least five of the nine girls ranked above her. That she started the year at No 33, spelt out her top-15 wish mid-2008 and exceeded self-expectations by making it to the top 10, proves her revised target of Top 5 by end-2009 might not be too far-fetched.
At her combative best, though, Nehwal won’t settle for a 50-50 start against anyone. “I would want to go into a match with any of those girls believing I can beat them. Give me a top seed in round 1, and I’ll look at it as an opportunity. After making it to the top 10, I’ll say for the first time that No 1 is realistic, though it’ll take time and plenty of hard work,” says the 18-year-old, the youngest of the top 10 flock at present. “More than the stamina and the strokes, what the rest of them really have is experience. It matters,” she adds, of the ten-strong list which has 6 women at 27 or above.
“It’s an achievement, but sometimes I can’t believe I’ve managed it at such a young age,” she says, though with no trace of conceit. “It can be tough to handle, because from now on all my opponents will give me a good fight in every single round. So I’ll have to live with the tension that my ranking might slip,” she explains.
Nehwal promises she won’t take it easy, will work twice as hard, and look to win Super Series events, not staying content with even semis or finals. “But I’ll not worry about rankings. The All England and the World Championships in India are my focus,” she says.
Nehwal’s quarter-finals at Hong Kong sealed her top-10 berth, but there’s just a tinge of regret on missing out on the year-ending cash-rich Super Series Masters in Malaysia, for which the Top 8 qualify, and where Nehwal is third on the reserve list in the event of (rather unlikely) withdrawals. “I’ve given up on that for this year because no one will miss the chance to play with the money on offer, but next year I hope to be a part of it,” she concludes.