August 16, 2015 2:17:41 am
She would go down to Spaniard Carolina Marin after leading at the halfway stage, and her countrymen shared in her dejection, their ‘never mind, next times’ consolations wrapped in some warm affection. Six months on, Nehwal is again set to face off against Marin — this time for the title of the World Champion, and the buzz for badminton should hit a crescendo on Sunday at Jakarta’s Istora Stadium as well as on lakhs of Indian televisions.
The 9,000-capacity stadium magnified the vocal support of Indonesians for their local girl Lindaweni Fanetri on Saturday as Nehwal shut out the rumbling noise and the distracting nous of her opponent, winning 21-17, 21-17. She became the first Indian to make the World Championship finals, and in what is the perfect title-battle between World No. 1 and 2, Marin and Nehwal will go head to head for the prestigious honour.
Coach Vimal Kumar was unbothered about Nehwal’s record as someone who was a five-time quarterfinalist — and nothing more, at the Worlds. And he didn’t seem too concerned about the loss that she was handed at All England either.
“What’s happened is in the past. I know it. But I don’t want to talk about it is what I’ve always told her,” he said after having ordered Nehwal off to sleep after Saturday’s dinner where he insisted she focus on the food instead of chewing on what might happen tomorrow. He had calmly told Nehwal to forget about February, when she’d felt the need to threadbare her All England finals loss, and talk about the doubts about the missing medal at the World Championships prior to heading to Jakarta this edition.
Vimal, as a father to two young daughters, empathised with what was gnawing at her, but as a coach, believed that talking about strokes and strategies could help her heal faster than dissecting the dejection.
Of course, the coach has prepped his ward at Bangalore.
“I’ve gotten her to practice against 2-3 left-handers in a few sessions back home,” he said. Marin’s 1-3 against Nehwal, but the crucial reverse came at Birmingham earlier this year, and she’d scrapped out another from a 1 hr 20 min match at the Syed Modi International.
Marin plays at a ferocious pace, and her speed will ask the most questions of Nehwal. Her left-handed play aids her deception — especially the overhead crosscourt, something the 25-year-old Hyderabadi would need to watch out for. But she’s not in possession of a weapon that should scare the Indian. A heavy dose of confidence has come Nehwal’s way from her former mentor and national coach, P Gopichand.
“She is playing well and she has to play till the end without letting the pressure get to her. Carolina’s speed is a challenge, but the way she played today was not very impressive. There were lots of unforced errors,” he said on the eve of the final.
While India has never had a World Champion, Gopichand believes it will be personally a massive feat for Nehwal.
“A win will be another big milestone for India. But for Saina if she cracks the gold, it will take her to another level,” he added.
Neither Vimal, nor her former coach are particularly worried about the All England loss casting a shadow on her. And former international Aparna Popat believes Nehwal has crossed the pressure-test in the quarters. “That was the big one for her against the Chinese and to ensure a medal. She’ll go into the final eager and excited,” she reckons, giving her 60-40 odds.
“Saina’s good against players she prepares for and after the All England, she won’t leave Marin. We are looking at a revenge match, and stroke-wise and in strength, Saina’s better,” she adds.
Nehwal has spoken about “tension” this week against Yihan Wang and even in the semis, when she battled the crowd.
But against Marin, knowing there’s no Prakash Padukone or Gopichand’s feats she needs to emulate at the hallowed All England and that she could be a World Champ for two years (no Championships next year), she is expected to play freely than ever before.
“If anything the All England loss will help her play better tomorrow,” Popat says. It would be liberating for her to know that the worst-case scenario is still a silver medal at Worlds, better than any other Indian.
Yet, what’s struck many this week is the absolute poise she’s playing with, leaving behind her edgy, aggressive stance on court. “Her body language has been consciously calm. She doesn’t get ruffled,” Arvind Bhat notes. Even when she’s slipped into errors she’s not panicked and has regained her composure.
Marin’s pulled off some important matches this year, but Nehwal knows she has the game to beat the Spaniard tomorrow. “The left-handed deception is what Saina will need to be wary of, but she has a superior game to Marin’s,” Bhat adds.
Typically, the pitfalls for Marin’s opponents come in the middle of the second set, should they have won the opener.
At the All England Nehwal wilted after a good start, but she has wisened up as was evidenced in the quarterfinals against the Chinese arch rival and needs to move well in the decider.
“Carolina likes to attack all the time. But Saina’s capable of counter attacking and can match her in aggression. They both know each other’s games really well. It will be an exciting final,” Vimal says.
Nehwal believes the conditions are different from Birmingham and knows that the Indonesians will be rooting for her. Vimal’s refrained from constant repetitions of All England and insists that Nehwal is very clear about Marin’s style and will stick to her own game. Gopichand states: “Saina is playing better (than All England), and has a better chance to win.” That’s two coaches who know her best rooting for her. Apart from the billion, eager to watch their girl being crowned World Champion.
On Sunday: Final matches live from 11.30 am on Star Sports 4
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