He had the best seat in the house when Saina Nehwal finally defeated long-time nemesis Yihan Wang in the quarterfinals of the All England at Birmingham. Two days later, Vimal Kumar, who as Nehwal’s coach had helped plot the Chinese arch-rival’s fall, underwent the agony of watching his ward spiral downwards from a seemingly dominant position in her final against Carolina Marin.
The Bangalore-based coach who had picked a 15-year-old Saina, bursting with energy and eagerness, from the bench at the Commonwealth Games team event in 2006 and thrown her into the deep end of international competition, is now guiding the older and wisened shuttler to conquering titles that have remained out of her reach. Beating Yihan Wang was a massive hurdle crossed given Saina had never defeated her before. But the Indian faltered at the last step of the All England. In a candid chat, the straight talking Vimal analyses the heartbreaking loss. Excerpts.
Is it safe to say that mental strength let Saina down in the final?
Mental strength varies from match to match. Saina’s tactical and mental ability against Chinese girls in quarters and semis was perfect. She was applying herself brilliantly. In the final, I still think she was playing the right game, and kept Carolina guessing. But I think at 20-11 in the opener she let her guard down a little and allowed Carolina to win the next 4-5 points. So even though Saina won the first game, she’d let Carolina in. In the second she started well. But to a certain extent — I think — the (pressure of) All England weighed her down. When the difficult situation came, she couldn’t cope with it. She went looking for easy points which Carolina wasn’t giving. When things were going well, Saina looked very good. But when things changed, she found it difficult to cope with that situation. At another tournament, she might have coped, but the pressure of All England made her stumble.
What happened in Set 3?
In the third game, she was mentally not there. Overall during the tournament, she was relaxed and playing to the plan. I would say All England final is a big loss, but we need to cheer her up. She didn’t lose for want of effort. She couldn’t address the mental aspect of that situation.
What makes Carolina a tricky opponent?
Carolina is intelligent and crafty unlike other Chinese players, who tend to be mechanical. Players like her and Tai Tzu Ying are a little different and can be very tricky. Once Chinese Li Xuerui is back, she could be a challenge too. But as for Carolina, a lot of credit should go to her. She’d beaten a lot of good players at the World Championships also.
What could Saina have done differently?
Saina needed to find a way out. You cannot just play Carolina at the same pace. You need to slow the pace down. Carolina doesn’t like long rallies, and prefers flat exchanges. Saina managed to keep her down in the first game, but in the second game suddenly her pushes started going short and she played into Carolina’s hands. When Carolina started putting pressure, she should’ve slowed things down, pushed shuttle to back of the court. She should have engaged her in longer rallies instead of trying to hit through her attack. But it’s easy for us to say she should’ve done this and that, sitting from outside. It’s tough, but as a top player she needs to learn to cope with these things.
Is Carolina intimidating with her body language?
Not intimidating, but Carolina is always animated and she keeps at it. When things go her way, she’s very combative, but that’s how it is with many players. Saina’s body language in that third game was so bad. She appeared lost. There will be situations like this, she’ll need to work on it. But if there’s one person who can come out of it and fight back next time, it’s Saina. This is a huge disappointment, but she needs to and will pick herself from this setback.
How was Yihan Wang finally conquered? (Saina’s lost to her eight times before, never winning a completed match)
Yihan’s was one of the best matches I’ve seen her play. Tactically Saina was really prepared. I’m pleased with how it went off. Yihan Wang looked confused, and she surprisingly did not change her gameplan. She persisted with tactics she had used before against Saina. In the semifinal against Sun Yu too, Saina was technically perfect. She didn’t tactically try many different things, or just hit smashes. Saina varied her game to a plan and when the opportunity came, went for the kill.
Did you prepare specifically for Yihan?
The way Yihan used to serve to her — it was a flat serve to Saina’s forehand, or to her back-court — and that would unsettle Saina a lot earlier. It was always a bad way to start. So we put in a lot of work on how she would receive the serve, so as not to give Yihan the upper hand in the rallies. We worked on other things — Saina mixed her drops and deceptive clears to the back-court. Earlier, Saina would just smash to the mid-court and that was easy for Yihan to handle. But this time, Saina hit to the lines and unsettled Yihan. Saina had put in lot of effort in preparation, but main thing is implementing in a match situation and I’m glad she could execute plans.
What’s the next target?
There’s the India Super Series, again something she’s not won. She has to come out and do her best. She’s putting in effort, no one can doubt that. There’s other meets like Malaysia and the World Championships where she’s not done too well. But she can look forward to it and put her best foot forward. There’s 8-10 girls right now, all at same level and all can beat each other on a given day. Winning can never be guaranteed. But my job is to cheer her up and get her back on track. No matter how gutted she is by the loss, we have to get her out of this and prepare for next meet.