A fresh chapter has begun for Saina Nehwal, and like most new challenges thrown at her in her badminton life, it needed to start with a big loss in the public glare of a massive final: she now returns to the drawing board and starts finding ways to stop losing to Marin, the marauding Spaniard.
India’s World No 2 was out-played 21-16, 21-19 by a rampaging Carolina Marin on Sunday at Jakarta’s World Championships, and given how widely the title final was followed across the country, the defeat will stay stamped on Indian minds and push Nehwal to find means to counter the World No. 1 against whom she has now come second-best in two big finals: All England and the Worlds.
Saina led 3-0 once, but the last one year has witnessed Marin not lose a big final. She played six, won four, and in total head-to-head goes up 2-3 to the Indian.
The finals at the sauna of an Istora Stadium cemented Marin’s reputation as a very popular World Champion – her second consecutive title in a row – on a day when Nehwal must’ve realised she’s no longer Indonesia’s sweetheart, given how lopsided the support was, in Marin’s favour. Indonesians love good badminton, and the 22-year-old top-ranked girl gave them that.
It should’ve been evident when Marin started tapping Nehwal’s drop-shots that the Indian was not going to finish this one right. It was the start though, that the Hyderabadi will kick herself for.
Pushed on the defensive at the very beginning, Nehwal never got to assert her own game, and was chasing the shuttle throughout the match, looking mighty worried about what was the next that Marin would pull out of her trick-bag.
Never in control
Lacking the assured movement and accuracy of the quarterfinals against Yihan Wang, Nehwal never looked in control of the match and was harried around by the quick-footed Spaniard. Where Nehwal lost her confidence – and the match – was at the net. Her errors from the forecourt kept growing and a couple of net-chords wouldn’t have helped. From 7-all in the opener, the gap would open like a crocodile’s jaw – 11-7, 16-10 and finally 21-16. Marin meanwhile was moving busily — you wouldn’t think she’d hurt her foot same time last month — and Nehwal’s pushes kept floating out. She was stabbing at them shakily, and not finding her lengths. The Spaniard’s dominance apparent from her aggression kept growing, and she had the better of the strokes — the round-the-heads and cross-courts at the net, and for the second time in six months, Nehwal wilted.
Two shots stood out: the overhead where Marin turns a shuttle on her backhand into a forehand stroke by arcing her snappy arm above the head, and her conventional left-handed forehand positioned next to the side alley that curves inside and came on Saina at an awkward angle. Shuttlers relish the accuracy on body smashes, but Marin could target Nehwal’s body even in that looping parabola. “I know she was more tired than me. I just kept thinking of each point, just wanted to enjoy the final and the crowd,” Marin said.
Even when the Indian led 12-6 in the second, Marin didn’t seem unduly worried. There were long rallies alright — some Saina even won — but Marin’s defense was outrageously persistent and she’d invariably chase the shuttle around and still find energy for the kill-shot, slumping Nehwal even further.
“Today I didn’t play my best, I could’ve done better. Too many mistakes in first game. In the second, I had a lead, but points went by very quickly and within no time she was level. I could’ve been more patient then during those 4-5 points,” she said, but you got the sense that even slowing the rallies down — not that Marin looked like in a mood to permit that — wouldn’t have helped Nehwal’s cause.
Nehwal can’t be accused of not attempting to change plans either — in one instance she tried a risky wrist deception from the net – changing direction of her stroke with a restraining locked wrist, but it was one of those days when she couldn’t pull it off. “In the second set, I was on the slower side. I was trying to make rallies happen but the points went very quickly,” she would say.
Saina is a good three years older than Marin and more experienced on the circuit. But that doesn’t necessarily equate the experience of the big final. “When you have the experience of playing a WC final, it’s easier. She was more free (sic) and not thinking of winning or losing,” Nehwal said.
Between 13-all and 17-evens in the second set, Nehwal would offer her best resistance — long constructed rallies finishing in an attacking smash as Marin started tiring, but for large parts of the match, the Indian had forgotten her instinctive weapon — the brutish smash — or wasn’t allowed to remember. “She was defensive, and the initiative was not there. She looked more worried about what Carolina would do next than playing her own game,” coach Vimal Kumar said.
Marin has beaten Chinese Xuerui Li and Yihan Wang, two of the most dominating players in their last few meetings, and it is clearly tough to beat her at her natural game. Nehwal needed to be at her best, and driven zealously — also prepared specifically for her.
It could be said that Nehwal was spent at the quarters obsessing over beating Yihan Wang and fizzled out in the final, returning with a silver. But all of Marin’s challengers have discovered that they need to be armed with Plans A, B and C to counter her. Sung Ji Hyun took her to three sets in the semis, but didn’t look like she could’ve won the decider. As World No. 2 though, the onus is on Saina to find the solution.
Marin has struggled against Intanon Ratchanok (she’s 0-4 still) and the Thai is in possession of deception and so completely comfortable in slowing down the pace and frustrating the restless Marin that it doesn’t seem like an answer to Saina’s hassles.
“One thing we know about Saina from this World Championship is that she can break jinxes. But we’ll need to be patient for her to figure out Marin,” former international Arvind Bhat, cautions. It’ll be a new chapter of her shuttle training — devising a gameplan against Carolina Marin, who is handing her drubbings like the 21-7 decider at All England and the straight sets one-sided battle of the Worlds. The last time someone heaped the down-and-out treatment on her was Chinese Yihan Wang. For solving that part of the puzzle eventually, Saina Nehwal deserves the silver.