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The scene resembled that outside of an operation theatre. Most sat on the edge of their seats,finger-nails were nervously being chewed to a bare minimum,and the tension could have been cut with the proverbial knife.

Written by Kabir Mandrekar | New Delhi |
August 7, 2011 1:45:22 am

The World Championships could well be a pointer to where Saina Nehwal’s Olympic dreams are headed. The stage for both events– separated by a year – will be the same Wembley Arena in the capital of England. Getting down to the nitty gritties,Kabir Mandrekar looks at the journey ahead,starting with the upcoming Worlds to a possible triumph at the 2012 Games

The scene resembled that outside of an operation theatre. Most sat on the edge of their seats,finger-nails were nervously being chewed to a bare minimum,and the tension could have been cut with the proverbial knife. A collective gasp echoed around the Siri Fort Stadium as Mew Choo Wong,the spunky Malaysian — last to beat a Chinese on Chinese soil — and ranked 19th in the world,stood just a point away from breaking a billion hearts by snatching the Commonwealth Ganes gold medal away from Saina Nehwal.

But this was to be the Hyderabadi shuttler’s moment of truth. After all,she had to prove to herself,if not anyone else,that she was worthy of all the hype around her. On probably the biggest stage of her life,Nehwal — without even a shred of doubt on her face — hit the lines,survived the game,and won glory for her country. She may have managed to hold her nerve in front of her chanting home fans,but it hasn’t always been the case with India’s greatest female shuttler.

Eight months on,the situation was in reverse. Nehwal found herself up a match-point against the World No. 3 Chinese — Wang Yihan — in the final of the Indonesian Open. This,after a sub-par tour of Asia,where she had suffered early exits at Thailand and Singapore,Nehwal was looking for redemption in Indonesia. Moreover,she was looking to take her game to the next level,to create a platform to secure a permanent place in the top three of the world and to take a step towards the coveted World No. 1 spot. As she was on the brink of this major upset against the formerly top-ranked Chinese,Nehwal was guilty of crucial unforced errors and the game slipped away from her grasp. Her nerves got the better of her and the country’s top badminton star looked affected by the magnitude of the occasion.

No big titles

While Nehwal may have taken the sport to new heights in India by taking on the might of south-east Asia almost single-handedly (she peaked at a career high of World No.2 last year),the biggest criticism has been that Nehwal hasn’t managed to win even a single big event so far.

In a career that has seen her bag a score of titles,she has missed out on the big tournaments like the All England Championship and the World Championships,and that too could have been the reason for that frustrating loss. With a little more than a year left for the London Olympics,it will be crucial for her to bag her first World Championships title at the completion of the August 8-14 Worlds in London,and in turn gain the confidence she will need to consistently beat her higher ranked Chinese opponents and ultimately achieve Olympic success. Atik Jauhari — Nehwal’s Indonesian coach-and-guide — seems to think so.

He is of the opinion that the tag of a World Champion strikes fear in the heart of the opponent even before the player takes the court. The stage is also the true test of the player’s worth,as it is one of the few events where the world’s best come fully prepared.

Important step

“Winning the World Championship will be very important for Saina’s Olympic dream. She has it in her to do well in London next year,but only a big tournament victory will give her the confidence she needs to register a medal-winning performance,” says Jauhari. He isn’t alone,as Indonesian counterpart Rudy Hartono — the 1980 world champion and eight-time winner of the All England Championship — echoes Jauhari’s sentiments. “She needs these victories if she has to make the transition from being a good player to a great player,” Hartono adds.

The Indian badminton community,on the other hand,consider the Worlds to be no different from any other top level tournament for their home-grown achiever. Pullela Gopichand —Nehwal’s mentor — would prefer a decent run-up to the Olympics,where she secures one tournament victory in which she beats top ranked players. While he would be delighted should his ward capture the title,he pits the World Championship victory to be on par with any other Super Series win.

Mixed reactions

“Even if someone were on a hot tournament winning streak,they can still lose out because of a bad day at the office in the Olympics. It will be good if Saina is in such form but it won’t guarantee anything,” Gopichand says. “If she just dishes out good performances on an average that would be enough to perform well at the Olympics.

“Also,we wouldn’t want her to peak before the London Games.”

Aparna Popat,former India No. 1,feels that the World Championships in London will only be important as far as acclimatisation is concerned.

“Tournaments like the All England and the World Championships are just more prestigious and I feel that Saina has already proved herself at the big stage. The importance of the Worlds this time will be that it is the venue for the Olympics,” says Popat.

Nehwal registered one of her most important victories of this year when she shocked World No. 3 Wang Xin in straight sets in the Sudirman Cup. She dominated every aspect of the game on her way to a fluent 21-15,21-11 victory and even avenged the Malaysian Open Grand Prix Gold loss from a few days before. According to Gopichand,she will need more such victories on a consistent basis if she fancies her chances of challenging her Chinese rivals.

“She just needs to cross that mental barrier and defeat them consistently. This will go a long way in securing a good performance in the Olympics,” adds Gopichand.

Along with victories over the top ranked players,Nehwal will also have to be wary of the lower-ranked and unknown players who have proved to be her bane in the past. World No. 12 Ratchanok Inthanon registered a straight games victory over her in the Sudirman Cup in May. Nehwal,who was the top seed in the Asian Badminton Championships in 2010,lost to China’s Xuerui Li in the semis and exited tearfully at Delhi. Another defeat that will rankle Nehwal,was to World No.15 Pui Yin Yip of Hong Kong in the quarterfinal of the Asian Games. This,however,is said to have happened in the immediate aftermath of her rift with Gopichand.

Coach-pupil standoff

The duo split up for a period of four months,which in turn resulted in a dip in form and an eventual slip in the rankings from No. 4 to her current No. 6. According to Jauhari,the equation between the two will be vital for a good performance in the Olympics. “It is because they stopped training together that Saina has not performed well this year. They must maintain a good relationship in order to do well at the Olympics,” Jauhari stressed.

Popat,on the other hand,feels that the little damage that was done shouldn’t really affect her preparations. “As long as they have a good professional coach-player relationship it will be enough. It’s very important for her confidence that they maintain this relationship,” she said.

Nehwal will also have the benefit of her Beijing experience,where she lost in the quarterfinals. Back then,it was attributed to lack of maturity and fitness. Kiran Challangunda —Nehwal’s physiotherapist — is aware of this and has made plans to start a six month fitness specific training in January 2012.

That along with a well-planned calendar of tournaments will keep her in good stead for Olympic success,according to Gopichand. “We are looking to enter her in only a few select Super Series tournaments. The main thing will be for her to remain injury-free in this duration. Injury-breaks spoils the rhythm of practice and causes a drop in rankings,” he said.

For now,the focus is on the World Championships which begin on Monday. The test event for the Olympics will be the true challenge of Nehwal’s capabilities. The dress rehearsal for the mega-event could well be a turning point in an otherwise disappointing year,and Nehwal will be hoping to leave her mark on the courts of Wembley.

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