The Olympics is a precarious eight months away, and this might not be the ideal time to hit the top gear with the wheels on a wobble. Saina Nehwal starts her campaign at the season-ending World Super Series Finals in Dubai, with one wary eye on her ankle as any aggravation of the injury that’s dogged her for the past few months can lead to a serious Achilles heel condition and put her Rio dreams in jeopardy.
First up for the Indian is Nozomi Okuhara, and though the Japanese might seem like the least challenging in a group that also has World Champion Carolina Marin and the talent oozing Taipese Tai Tzu Ying in the round robin format of Pool A, the opener on Wednesday will test the Indian’s movement on court given Okuhara’s propensity to rally endlessly and harry her opponents into submission.
The Dubai meet comes right in the middle of Nehwal’s recuperating schedule, where exerting the foot could prove to be immensely costly. One wrong lunge, one mis-step and it could set her back by many more months in the run-up to the Olympics. It is why, India’s top shuttler was measured in her expectations. “I’ve been undergoing physiotherapy for the last three weeks and I feel I’m in good shape, but you never know. I’m not expecting big results because of the injury which I had in China. I just want to give my best,” Nehwal told the PTI.
Nehwal’s injury troubles — there’s the side strain and the dodgy ankle separately started soon after her World Championships final appearance, though she made the finals of the China Open — trying to defend points from last year — in the second half of the year.
The preparation back in Bangalore has been mostly standing strokes for the Indian shuttler who relies mightily on full fitness. Coach Vimal Kumar, however, had hinted about his ward’s inability to rest it out owing to World Badminton Federation (BWF) commitments and the PR blitz that accompanies Nehwal. A broadcaster has flown down a score of fans to Dubai as part of a fan-squad, but Nehwal will need to keep one eye firmly on the biggie in August even in the face of a dinning partisan Indian expat crowd at Dubai’s Hamdan Sports Complex tomorrow.
Still, the crowd will be treated to the season’s biggest rivalry in the league stage — when Marin and Nehwal go head to head, with Marin trying to bring the numbers to parity (Nehwal leads 3-2). “I think she had a great year, she’s been playing really well. She’s a tough competitor for everyone. She’s in good shape right now and I’m struggling with the injury so you never know. It’s a very tough pool. Both Tai Tzu and Carolina have defeated me this year, so it’s not going to be easy. I expect every match to be tough and long hard battles. I just hope I give them a good fight,” Nehwal told PTI.
Marin, world’s best
Marin, who picked the Best Player of the Year award at the season-ending gala last night (first non-Asian since 1999) told the media in Dubai, “She’s a good player. She’s a talented player and she has really good quality in the shuttles. When I play against her, I believe my game gets better because I can’t make mistakes against her.”
With five SS titles this year (that’s close to half on offer), Marin has had a sensational season, topped by the Worlds title — her second. Nehwal did well to medal at the Worlds with a silver and has a pair of titles in the first half as well as the China final, but will play it with caution with the Olympics looming in the next year. Nehwal’s been in the Last 4 three times, and made the finals in 2011.
India can hope for some sparks and exciting matches from K Srikanth, who is placed in a group with Japanese wonderkid Kento Momota, Danish Viktor Axelsen and skilful Taipese Chou Tien Chen, all of whom have shown inconsistency this season, and are hence prone to playing unpredictably, making it a highly combustible group.
Srikanth’s had a rough tumbling season after the highs of last year and the India Open title in April. He made the finals at Indonesia, losing a thriller against Tommy Sugiarto, pointing to the problem that’s dogged him the whole season — his inability to close out a match, ending up on the wrong side of humdingers. Dubai will be a good opportunity to set things straight. He starts out against Momota (3-3 head to head), hitting the ground running after landing from Indonesia.