Saina Nehwal asserted her dominance coming up against her first tough rival Korean Word No 2 Sung Ji Hyun, winning 21-19, 21-15 with vintage class to move into the quarterfinals. Covering up leads in each game, the 27-year-old Indian rattled off winners with half-smashes and net strokes, to return to contention after a year spent recovering from a rough knee surgery.
Excerpts from an interaction with Saina after her victory on Thursday:
What was your approach to the match?
I didn’t want to play her as a World No 2. I just wanted to play her as an opponent I’d beaten before. I wanted to keep in mind everything that had helped me beat her before and use it today. I am not thinking of a medal, I just wanted to get out of the match with a win. Play my natural game. I have a medal already at the Worlds (silver in 2015), so I have nothing to prove. I don’t need to worry. I just need to play well.
What’s the challenge when playing Sung Ji Hyun?
She doesn’t have a big kill smash to end rallies. But she has some very steep shots. I was happy I could pick those down shots, bend and retrieve them. She’s World No 2 because she’s been consistent, so you can never take her easy. On a day, she can beat anyone. The problem with playing someone whom you’ve beaten before is you can’t keep thinking you’ve defeated them. They’ll come back.
Trailing by a clutch of points, how did you come back?
I was very worried about covering the points in the first game. In the second, it was fine, because you get that feeling of finishing off, but in the first it was tough. At that point, you can only think – Ok, just go home if you can’t win this. She had some amazing half-smashes, and was fighting for every point.
Did you beat her because you were stronger and fitter?
No, both of us are equally fit. I won on my skills today – my net and half- smashes were sharp. In badminton, it’s not like if you are tired, you’ll continue being tired. It happens in patches – that energy that gets injected. You get tired, then you recover for the next five points. At 17-13, I had to put a lot of energy in hitting smashes and running to the net. That effort was needed.
Are you happy being under the radar when attention is not on you?
No, I hate it. I love attention. I want more attention and people wanting me to win.
Are you back to your best?
No, I’m not playing well. I had a very hard injury. But I realise that you can’t be at the top at all times. Let us see. I played OK. Still, I’m not at 100 per cent. I’ll be very happy the day I play at my best. That day I’ll come and tell you I’m back.
How are you looking ahead?
Every match is tough and I can’t expect to be in the finals. Injuries can be easier to come back from, but surgery was a new experience. No one other than the one suffering knows how much it can hurt. But it’s sport. I don’t mind these painful days as long as I come back strong.
Do you feel less pressure?
It’s not like people have forgotten me. It’s tough to come out of injury. But if Tine Baun and Chong Wei can come back after injury, so can I. Even Roger Federer came back from injury. It doesn’t matter if results take one year or two or four to come. It’s not like I can’t beat these players. I’ve beaten them before.
It’ll be a tough mach. Big stage. Tough opponent, and new opponent. Let’s see. I want to play my best.