It is only conjecture what was said between Xuerui Li (24) and her coach Chen Jin (age 29) soon after the Chinese beat Saina Nehwal 21-12, 21-15 in one of the shortest finals the Indian has played in and lost in her career. But somewhere around the 40th minute mark (the match ended in 39) after the lightest of congratulating hand-shakes, Chen Jin raised his index finger gesticulating aggressively towards Xuerui who also repeated the raised index finger and nodded vigorously in return.
In all the brouhaha of Saina Nehwal becoming World No 1 in recent months, and Carolina Marin following soon after (both girls publicly celebrating the feat on Twitter), what was forgotten was that the World No 1 was snatched from the hands of a Chinese who was not accustomed to not being the No 1 ever since she hit her stride in the lead-up to her London Olympics gold medal.
Li Xuerui isn’t just another Chinese that Nehwal was up against on Sunday at Fuzhou while the Indian defended her points and title. Xuerui was the one whose performances were failing her reputation as one of the game’s most complete contemporary players, a high achieving one. Xuerui was also the one who had lost two straight World Championship finals to Thai Ratchanok and the Spaniard Marin. As such, the table-topping World No 1 celestial position had been Xuerui’s to lose given her domination at the pinnacle not too long ago. Nehwal had snatched that title – which the Chinese had come to possess as their own – earlier this year, and after her twin Worlds losses and an abdomen injury and myriad strappings that denied her a title for one whole year, Xuerui was hurting more than ever before.
In her moment of small triumph at the China Open on Sunday – her third home crown – Xuerui and her coach Chen Jin were perhaps reaffirming their resolve of reclaiming that No 1 position. The Chinese usually do it without much fanfare – getting to the top – and as such have considered the women’s singles No 1 their collective chattel as a nation. But with five other players standing in their way, Xuerui Li & Co could enjoy the final ascent a tad more.
Another Indian had given Xuerui an opening into a tight match a month ago at Denmark, a win the Chinese had celebrated with uncharacteristic tears because she hadn’t managed a title for twelve months and the pressure was gnawing at her nerves. In China, it was Nehwal’s turn to allow Xuerui to get away after she led 12-6 in the second after being outplayed in the opener 12-21.
“I started well, but I wasn’t able to connect the shuttle, it was very strange. Many of my shots went out, and she was anticipating everything. I think I was in a hurry to finish off points. She was catching my pace very well and was able to pick out my shots at the net. I should’ve been more patient,” Nehwal said later.
It wasn’t just that Xuerui moved better, but her strokes laced with deception were stumping the Indian repeatedly even as she read Nehwal better. There is that forehand Xuerui stroke from the backcourt which loop cunningly straight down the line, and then there are the Chinese champion’s wristy flicks at the net from her backhand which can bamboozle.
“Li played better and Saina was finding it tough to get a good length and also was sluggish. When you play short against Li she has lot of variations and it is tough to read her shots,” coach Vimal Kumar said. The Chinese 24-year-old would take off at 4-all in the first set, and gain rapid leads to go a set up in 16 furious minutes.
She was helped on her way by Nehwal’s flurry of unforced errors, offering least resistance to piling up the points that were given away too easily.
Nehwal would alter her tactics – up her pace at any rate – at the start of the second, and run up a 11-6 lead. If there’s anyone on the circuit you would back, the commentator would say, to stomp back from a trailing position, it was the gutsy Indian. But it was not to be, as the changeover saw Xuerui rise from her reverie and hit attacking mode all over again. 15 of the last 18 points would be snapped up by the Chinese as she raced to her second title in two months.
“Saina needs to improve tactically against Li,” Vimal Kumar would say, looking to better the head to head against the Chinese which now reads 10-3 after the dismal 13th encounter. Still, given how Nehwal’s beaten back similarly daunting numbers against Yihan Wang, she could be a trick or two and some solid fitness upgrades away from solving the Li puzzle. “Li Xuerui played well, she was moving very fast. I made too many mistakes. I wanted to get points very quickly,” Nehwal said—that impatience getting the better of her in yet another title
Nehwal, currently World No 2, would go down in her third big final – after All England and Worlds this year – making the season a cake with the icing in the form of the No 1 tag, but minus the cherry of a big final. “I was feeling good this tournament, but I didn’t get enough time to train. Happy to beat good players on the way to the final, like Sun Yu, Nozomi Okuhara and Wang Yihan. I need some more time to get back to my best,” the 25-year-old said.
At the other end, were a team that have seemingly taken first steps to overcoming that barrier of losing a final. Chen Jin, the perennial No 2 behind Lin Dan, and Xuerui, who lost two blistering finals at the Worlds, were rejoicing their return.