Former India shuttler Trupti Murgunde recalls how she “enjoyed” playing against Saina Nehwal those dozen years ago on the circuit. It is usually not something an athlete would be thrilled to hear. Saina had her strength, fitness and ‘world-class grit’ even as a precocious teenager, as the retired international, now a coach, remembers. But Trupti snuck in a few wins with her limited – yet effective – stash of deception. She would pepper her modest physical game with a lot of wrist-work and mind games to needle Saina, and actually looked forward to facing her.
Trupti reckons she knows a bit about how Tai Tzu-Ying’s mind might work at the prospect of facing Saina in the Denmark Open Super 270 final. It is this chuckling feeling of enjoying herself while playing Saina, of setting up for herself a nice little Sunday stroll, that Trupti wants Nehwal to deny the Taiwanese when the two cross swords for the 18th time on the international circuit.
Trupti, who understands a deceptive player’s comfort zone, is preaching an all-out attack for Saina to end a losing streak that has stretched for 10 matches. “What really angers stroke-makers like Tai Tzu is when they are not allowed to commandeer the shuttle. Saina needs to dominate the rally right from the first shuttle. Tai Tzu is far more consistent than before, but the best possible thing is if Saina retrieves well, and really makes her unhappy by returning everything to her,” Trupti says, adding that the last week gives Indians hope.
This confidence stems from the way Saina has gone about beating the two top Japanese – Akane Yamaguchi and Nozomi Okuhara. “She’s looking in good form this entire tournament, she needs to maintain that rhythm,” Trupti says. She believes that Saina will draw confidence from those wins. “Those two are big convincing wins. After a long time, Saina is in a big final, and after going past two top girls. I’m sure she’ll be feeling good about her game,” she adds, stressing that denying Tai Tzu control is the way to go.
As such, Saina’s game contrasts with Tai Tzu’s in its inherent aggression, though the wear and tear of injuries has forced her to adapt to rallies. “She now needs to show her confidence on court through her body language,” Trupti says, while conceding that Tai Tzu has been moving as well as ever, and isn’t sporting any glaring weaknesses.
On Saturday, Saina hit some of the straightest overhead blitzes, sending them deep and exploiting world junior champ Gregoria Mariska Tunjung’s packed-up back. While most experts believe finals tend to be 60 per cent mental, Trupti scythes through the cliché to state Saina’s enduring truth: Her game depends on how she’s feeling physically.
”Saina’s nature is like that. It will depend on how she feels about her fitness at the end of a week of tough matches. How tired she is, if the body is supporting her, and how good was her recovery,” Trupti adds.
“Back in 2010 when she was beating 3-4 Chinese to win titles, it was established she never cracks mentally. Post injury, her game is a bit restricted in movement. But a strong mind is never her problem. Even at the start when she wasn’t considered much of a stroke player, we knew even a 5 per cent drop in fitness can bring her game down by 50 per cent,” she says.
While Saina added an efficacious net game and variety in her downward strokes over the years to her stock big smash, Trupti insists that a bulk of the challenge when facing Tai Tzu is always anticipation. There’s a backhand cross-court which Trupti singles out as one of Tai Tzu’s wickedest weapons. “Her net play variations hurt. That backhand shot which she takes very low and places it in spots you’d never fathom, that’s the danger shot Saina needs to be wary of,” she adds.
Normally deception relies on catching the shuttle high and giving yourself time to plate up the tricks. “But she will pick it in the last second, and then convert it into a cross when a hundred times out of 100 you’d expect she’ll send it back straight,” Trupti gushes.
While Tai Tzu’s variations in the front court have bamboozled every other player, Trupti maintains that on a good day, Saina can stop the Asian Games champion from executing her strokes and frustrate her. “Saina’s looking good, and she’s pulled out smart games against the Japanese,” she avers.
A good start is never enough against Tai Tzu. All of 2014-15 when Saina reached World No 1, she was nicking the opening game but not finishing thereafter. Her last six face-offs with Tai Tzu have been straight-set losses, but while there was pugnacious resistance at the Asian Championships that pegged up to 25-27, there was also a 21-9 Tai Tzu blitz in Indonesia that stressed the importance of angling for early dominance.
Trupti remembers Saina as a 15-year-old who had once declared she would be Olympic champion. “Sabhi bolte hai, so we first shrugged it off as bravado. But she stayed focused and got this far by taking initiative. Tomorrow against Tai Tzu, she needs to do the same,” Trupti ended.