Make no mistake–Rio Olympics will be the toughest cat to bell in Saina Nehwal’s career – for there’s a fair few whiskers out there sniffing at that coveted title. Two leading contenders for gold, Xuerui Li and Carolina Marin, last won a Super Series in November of 2015 and you presume these long hibernations for loss of form at your own peril. Japanese Nozomi Okuhara picked the prestigious All England after her season-ending Super Series Finals, Thai Intanon Ratchanok strung together a hat-trick of titles earlier this season and the ever-effervescent, always-dangerous Tai Tzu Ying won in front of the most raucous badminton crowd at Indonesia in last week’s fight for the title.
If Saina Nehwal’s 11-21, 21-14, 21-19 title victory at the Australian Super Series proves anything at all as this constellation of talent in women’s singles badminton begins its blinding dazzle, it is that the Indian is hungry to get into this mix, aiming for her second consecutive Games medal. Sun Yu is a Chinese second string – though tipped to take over not too long after the Olympics – and she got hitting some really deep shots early in the Sunday final that forced Nehwal to dip into her reserves in what will be her last outing prior to the Olympics. Having beaten Ratchanok and her fiercest rival Yihan Wang on back to back days, if Nehwal had hoped for an easier canter towards the Sydney title because it was Sun Yu, she was denied that pleasure.
Ten years after a 16-year-old had audaciously stepped forward to play a CWG team tie at Melbourne and impressed the then national coach Vimal Kumar with her appetite for a fight, Nehwal was back to proving to her coach that an Olympic bronze medal and a stint as World No 1 later, that hunger remains unsatiated. The 26-year-old would struggle against Sun’s length early on and start with a wobble, to go a set down. Without a Super Series title since last March, and with only a pair of finals to show at China and the Worlds thereafter, Nehwal had built up a dossier of losses to the fast-emerging names – a fact that would no doubt have gnawed at the proud champion. Winning in Australia suddenly seemed very necessary, and not just something convenient. The tall Sun Yu – the tallest girl on the circuit and with a game that’s not lightweight – stood in her path, a set up in the final.
Shrugging off this slow start where Sun was dictating the rallies which could’ve snowballed into a demotivating loss to a lesser experienced Chinese, Nehwal turned on her offensive side and overturned the lead in scathing fashion. She’s done this a few times – notably the win against Carolina Marin at Dubai in the season-ender, and against Yihan Wang in the semis in Australia. She switched to attack in the second set, and began moving quicker, looking more attacking than she has ever before – taking decisive leads at crucial junctures and seeing the challenge through in a solid 71 minute limb loosener to the Olympics. “She really wanted the win badly and that made the difference,” coach Vimal Kumar said.
Sun catches Saina off-guard
Sun had caught Nehwal off-guard though, and at a time when she was attempting to get back into form and admittedly not in peak condition. “Seriously I was not expecting to win this tournament as I’m still trying to get back my form. I am not in my best shape. Today was extremely tough. My body was not reacting well – not like yesterday (vs Wang Yihan),” she told the BWF later. “She (Sun) was hitting good deep shots and I was not getting them. I really had to fight to turn things around. This is the first time she has given me such a tough fight.” She’d almost demanded a tough match after the Yihan win, and promptly got one. Against Yihan, Nehwal had executed a game plan – taking the shuttle early at the net, jogging back laterally quickly, and mix0ing her cross and down the line smashes as well as clears deceptively.
Ratchanok’s never troubled Nehwal to the point of aggravation but the Thai was the girl on a hot streak, and the Indian had done well to shut her out in the quarters, dominating the proceedings.
Still, and crucially, coach Vimal Kumar reckons that Nehwal has her task cut out in the coming 6-7 weeks. “I still feel Saina can do a lot better tactically against players like Li Xueri, Wang Yihan, Tai Tzu, Ratchanok – the players she lost (to) this season,” said Vimal Kumar who rued that the duo have not really gotten a continuous patch to train at a stretch. What the Australia title did was reassure the coach of his charge’s grit. “I was very impressed with the way she played yesterday and today after a poor start she found her way back and that was made possible only because of her determination,” he said.
Where 2016 differs considerably from 2012 –though she likes winning a title in June heading into Olympics – is the toll that injuries have taken on her body. Nehwal’s smartened up in the last few years finding the balance between relieving fear of injury and fierceness needed to win big matches. “When you have no aches and pains and that you gain by doing the right physical conditioning you can get to a level and play to your potential. Saina to a certain extent is able to find a good balance in her work outs. At the highest level that is very important,” the coach reiterates.
Saina Nehwal’s come a long way since that Commonwealth Games in Australia a decade ago – playing at the highest level consistently since she won the Philippines Open soon after Melbourne. It’s an unforgiving field of competitors now – more than ever before – though Vimal Kumar believes you can never rule this gutsy Indian out of any podium equation. “She is at the peak of her career and still has the same drive and passion for the game. And this is going to be her 3rd Olympics and that experience matters,” he says. A lot more calmer, and not restless as before, the coach says, “With that experience you get wiser and she is in that phase now. Still at times she is like a kid,” he says.
A kid who is not content with the bronze and hungry once again for an Olympic medal. “Yes, this will build my confidence ahead of the Olympics but the Olympics is quite different. It’s the most prestigious tournament and there will be a lot of expectations from different people; from the whole country. I want to focus and do some hard training. I have found my rhythm back and I hope I will not have any injuries,” she said, even as the coach began mapping out a sked for opponent-specific strategizing.