Having never beaten Yihan Wang outright (in a completed match) in nine meetings, Saina Nehwal would’ve stared at the All England draw this year with familiar trepidation. Once again, she was facing the prospect of a quarterfinal face-off with Yihan, beating whom is literally a tall order.
At 178 cms — nearly touching 6 feet and with her whiplash wingspan — Yihan has been akin to an intimidating Shanghai skyscraper, the Chinese girl’s steely façade matching her iron grit as she has relished drubbing the Indian over the last five years.
However, Nehwal who moved from Hyderabad to Bangalore to train under Vimal Kumar has put in the extra effort this time even as her coach summoned some high quality sparring that could simulate the steep angles from which Yihan launches her smashes and other weapons.
Besides the coach himself — he’s almost 6’2”, men’s singles international Arvind Bhat (6’1”) and a couple of other towering male players chipped in with the training from across the court.
While Saina Nehwal (currently ranked 4) has managed wins against the other two Chinese Xuerui Li and Shixian, her struggles against Yihan are well-documented.
It’s not just the 8-1 head-to-head (the lone win coming from a second set retirement at Denmark with the Chinese trailing) that shows the staggering lop-sidedness of this rivalry, it is also the memories of London Olympics where Yihan had demolished Nehwal’s challenge in the semifinals, rubbing it in with a screeching celebration.
A proven nemesis — despairingly for Nehwal — Yihan has also managed to shorten the contests against the Indian in the last two years, nipping the challenge ruthlessly so that the last three completed matches have been straight-set affairs, as against the 2010-11 games where Nehwal could drag her into the third set decider.
Identical 38-minute swattings at Delhi and the Swiss Open in 2014 to go with the scarring loss at London, means the Yihan threat has acquired demonic proportions.
It is not the simple matter of vertical advantage, but more of Yihan’s sharpness in strokes from that altitude. Arvind Bhat reckons Nehwal has put in enough work preparing for the All England, specifically focussing on the Friday encounter.
“The problem is Saina comes up against very few tall players of that level so it’s about getting used to her game during a match. Saina’s trajectory from drop shots up will lack the elevation. It has to go higher when she hits,” he explains.
The pace at which Yihan usually plays also makes it difficult to hit higher if you are breathing heavy towards the end. He stresses that Saina’s clears will need to go to the back-court and not land and linger mid-court, which is a comfortable height and position for Yihan to attack.
Nehwal showed promise in her pre-quarters game against teenaged tall Korean Kim Hyo Min (21-15, 21-15 win) when she made her opponent sprint back and forth diagonally while testing her new-found fondness for cross-courts on the backhand.
However, getting Yihan to scurry around will be an altogether different challenge as the aggressive Chinese has seldom allowed Saina to dictate terms. “But Saina’s worked really hard. She’s lost weight and is looking slim and strong. Her game’s good and fitness will not be a worry, but small things will count as will her big belief that she can beat Yihan tomorrow,” he says.
As such, her fitness will be tested severly solely by the high pace at which Yihan plays, it will also be about if she can tire out Yihan, who was stretched to a 60-minute battle by Japanese Minatsu Mitani during a 21-23, 21-6, 21-16 win Thursday.
Bhat was a touch worried about Nehwal’s composure in the match against the Korean as she seemed to be hurrying a tad, and stressed that composure and how relaxed she is could be crucial in the Yihan match-up. “She won easy but looked a little tight. She needs to be relaxed and believe she can beat Yihan, because once she’s convinced about it, it’s tough to stop Saina. Tomorrow it will be about who’s calmer since it’s a pressure game,” he said, pointing to a battle that would be both physical and psychological. What was heartening in the lead-up game however were the tough angles she was exploring from the back and an assured use of the ‘stick-smashes’ (like a withheld wrist whip smash) that Nehwal’s executing with more conviction.
Yihan is particularly ruthless in closing out games and is known to race away to leads from middle of a set which have proven insurmountable for the Indian in the second set or decider. However with dedicated training with Yihan Wang in focus and Vimal Kumar trying his best to get her used to the steep strokes by getting her to spar with tall training mates, a turnaround might round the corner.
BIRMINGHAM: Indian women’s doubles pair of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa Thursday crashed out of the All England Badminton Championships as they suffered straight-game defeat at the hands of top seeded Chinese duo of Tian Qing and Zhao Yunlei in the second round here. Gutta and Ponnappa lost 10-21, 13-21 in a 36-minute duel. The Indians were outplayed by the Chinese who never allowed their opponents to make a fightback. (PTI)