Magical connects, eyes that speak, smiles that laugh – all those are best left to movie screenplays. Saina Nehwal even has a biopic coming up, to pack all that in. But sweet nothings on a real badminton court involving a real couple with real sweat and a really stubborn opponent, can sound as shrill and sedulous as Parupalli Kashyap incessantly hammering Saina with advice of “Peechhe maaro, Peechhe maaro.”
It took a fair bit of ruckused repeating from Kashyap, and slow processing and executing from Saina, to get the mix right, before Nehwal won the Denmark Open Super 750 quarterfinal late Friday, 17-21, 21-16, 21-12.
Now, most of India knows what havoc a certain Nozomi Okuhara can wreck if she is allowed to settle into her pointe ballerina footwork and trampoline gymnast’s windmill arms routine, while dictating points from the net or midcourt. Before she gloriously swallowed Sindhu in that epic World’s final in 2017, Okuhara had gobbled up Saina in the semis. Two more losses would pile up for the Indian to narrow her faceoff figure lead to 6-4.
Kashyap sitting alongside one of his and Saina’s earliest coaches at the Gopichand Academy, Siyadattulah, would start plotting the return from a set-down, where Okuhara glided with her crosscourt drops and skimmed the lines, floating from the midcourt. Saina needed to pull the plug violently on the soundless lulling Tchaikovsky tune to which Okuhara was pirouetting to pick the first 21-17, and to this end, Kashyap would sit court-side and do the inelegant shouting.
Inch by inch, Saina would start pushing Okuhara back and pin her to the baseline before wickedly summoning her lunges to deal with the wicked net placements. Okuhara, of the zen fame, circa September 2017, would get visibly hassled and go down in a pile of errors.
Two line hits especially, with the shuttle barely grazing the chalk line – once on the side alley and next on the backline – would upset the Japanese a tad too severely.
So a cruising 10-6 lead in the second set for the 23-year-old – was wasted as Saina, 28, dug her heels in, and retrieved relying more on anticipation than acrobatics to draw level at 11-11.
Okuhara had played a lovely drop skimming the sideline a little earlier – a swishing bird that Saina’s eyes followed, though the desired backhand never turned up.
But she would avenge that skimmer with two line-shuttles that only just pecked Okuhara’s borders. The first came at 8-10 down for Saina in the second.
The shuttle would land only a few millimetre on the line coming from a scorching wide Saina crosscourt. The Indian rarely gets her judgment wrong and she challenged, as a potential 8-11 runaway lead got suddenly overturned to 9-10, from where Okuhara would struggle to keep down a compact Saina, finding her groove and eventually running amok.
Not too much later, one of Saina’s looping shots would find the tiniest of circumference on the line. A day after she had downed Akane Yamaguchi – her first in 4 years over the World No 2, taming her deceptive fuzzy ball birds, the Indian would patiently but piercingly take apart Okuhara’s game. Saina’s precise tactics were drawing the sting out of the Japanese who would brood and berate her own game before getting beaten altogether.
The third set saw a regal Saina making the most of the offcolour Japanese – still returning to full tilt from a back injury, even as the coaching strategy fell into place, and a fretting Kashyap afforded himself a smile. Saina kept on bulging the lead and would romp home at 21-12.
A chuckling formal handshake, pat on the back from Siyadath who tempered Kashyap’s agitation and zero histrionics from the winner later, Saina would wrap up proceedings at a venue that’s a reminder of her breeziest three months.
Fresh from her Olympics bronze, Saina had gone onto win the title at Odense in 2012. Life has taken her down a dizzy roller coaster thereafter – with some nasty nauseous lows, though on Friday, she had two of the most comforting and comfortable faces in her corner.
Kashyap, who she marries later this year, has been a sounding board from ever since Saina started playing. And sliding into the coach’s chair might’ve made him a tad conscious of the cameras – he fidgeted contrasted with the usually stoic, unblinking Gopichand – but Kashyap had his tactics pat.
Later, he would attest to strategizing being the least of his bothers. “This was
nothing new! I’ve seen her play for so many years. I know what her strengths and her weaknesses are. Me and Gopi Sir always discuss it too. So nothing new,” he would say.
On his specific instructions to hit to the backcourt, Kashyap would add, “It was just an instinct at that time. Just felt she needed to open up the court, that’s it.” Hitherto getting trapped on Okuhara’s time stopping drops, Saina had needed to burrow different pathways and that meant keeping the Japanese busy at the back.
They might have been friends for over a decade and half, but Saina was still struggling to walk the path Kashyap was chalking out for her from the sidelines.
“There was no turning point as such to the match. The moment she understood what I was saying and implemented it, it got easier for Saina. What I was asking her to play, she was taking time to implement it. Slowly, slowly she managed to execute it,” he would add.
Preparing Saina for her semifinal against the elegant Gregoria Mariska Tunjung, the world junior champion, will be a new challenge. Just as well that Kashyap remembers how driven and eager to make a mark freshly minted junior world champs can be. Ten years ago in 2008, that blazing arrow was his academy mate – Saina Nehwal. The Indonesian will find none of that tenacity diminished in her opponent.
Courage and Kashyap have been two of the biggest constants in Saina’s life and career.