“That’s the original Saina”: Parupalli Kashyap would sum up the stunning 23-21, 9-21, 21-12 victory Saina Nehwal scored over Carolina Marin, in a way that only an old friend and fellow traveller of the same arduous journey around the badminton circuit, would.
In a classic throwback to unfettered times circa 2008 when a teenaged Saina Nehwal was being feted around the shuttling globe for her feistiness without tags like ‘former World No 1’ hanging down her neck like a burden and when it was all about how fearlessly she slayed bigger names, the Indian ace played 75 minutes of unabashedly attacking badminton at the Dubai World Super Series Finals to fight past the World champion Spaniard.
It was only a round robin pool game of the season ender, but the occasion was loaded with belligerence given how shrilly aggressive Carolina Marin can get on the court as the match enters a decider. At the Hamdan stadium, where the World No 1 was pitted against the World No 2 — a rivalry that now looks truly alive and less lopsided — Nehwal had the odds stacked up like those floors of a Dubai sky-scraper. She’d looked heavy-footed on court in her opening match against the Japanese Okuhara. She had lost two massive finals this season to Marin under full public glare that the All England and World Championships invite. The memory of her last win over Marin — not too long ago, mind — had faded under the cloud of self-doubt, though that 1 hr 20 minute three-setter at Lucknow’s Syed Modi meet had come at the start of the same calendar year. And finally, her awkward mix of injuries – a dodgy ankle mostly – had left her doubting herself, when on a fitter day she would’ve fancied reversing the results against Marin without a fuss.
But on a fiery Thursday, Saina Nehwal upturned all concerns of form and fitness, to dish out a vintage treatment that relies on unrestrained attack as much on unyielding defense. The 25-year-old Nehwal would pick every shuttle thrown at her – the first step towards rattling Carolina Marin, who over a very successful season has gotten accustomed to opponents wilting in front of her own aggressive left-handed play. Nehwal was taking the fight deep into the opponent’s trenches, pouncing on every shuttle, even as her shot-selection stayed spot-on throughout.
“I don’t know how to explain it. I never expected to play like this,” Nehwal said later. “I went in with no expectations as I had not trained in the last three weeks due to my Achilles injury. But it was one of my best wins,” she declared. Operating at a furious pace – which was so staggeringly different from her sluggish ways yesterday – Nehwal would stay in every rally in a high quality contest that looked like a good spectacle of a top-board face-off in women’s singles.
Vimal Kumar’s advice
It was coach Vimal Kumar’s calm, sagacious advice upfront that set the tone. “I told her to go all out and try (winning) the first game since after yesterday’s match there was no pain. The main concern was if she could sustain the pace. I think she just enjoyed the situation and played without any expectations,” he said later. Nehwal, sturdy in her defense, and cutting off Marin’s angles (the Spaniard mostly tried the drops forcing Nehwal to lunge on her backhand forecourt), would unleash a fierce attack mixing her cross-courts with tosses to the corners and never backing off from the net-battle.
The Indian led 9-3, before allowing Marin 7 straight points to go 15-12 in front. It was at this juncture that Nehwal would pull out the big guns, the power strokes and smashes in her arsenal and grab the lead at 19-16. Marin, though shaken and in disbelief at the riposte, was stretching Nehwal but couldn’t prevent falling back 16-19. The World No 1 levelled at 21-21, but a calm yet determined Nehwal had the upper hand in the longer rallies, winning the big points to frustrate the favourite. The first set pocketed, Saina Nehwal wasn’t willing to let go.
Earlier, Vimal Kumar had hinted that despite her loss in the first match at Dubai, Nehwal had played without pain. In fact, Nehwal had swapped a physio for her strength and conditioning coach Deckline Leitao who travelled with her, since she was still in the recovery and conditioning phase. Nehwal had not played any badminton last three weeks concentrating mainly on strengthening the injured area and had lacked on-court stamina because of lack of court work. “As she starts her full fledged on court sessions she will be back,” Vimal Kumar had said. It happened sooner than was expected, her resolve drawn out no doubt by the fact that it was Marin across the court.
Quite simply, it is the only way to play against Marin, who seemed to be earning an edge over Nehwal: retrieving unstoppably, inducing errors out of Marin’s impatience. Vimal Kumar’s strategising was spot-on on the day, as after a breather of the second set, Nehwal pulled away at 4-4 in the decider. Holding on possessively to that lead, she would drive Marin out of the match with her blitzing attack.
Watching from Hyderabad, where he is undergoing his own rehab and battling an injury-enforced break while he ought to have been in Dubai, Kashyap was inspired. “I love it when she plays like that. It’s inspiring,”he would say. “And I hope she remembers (how she played) today,” he would say, pleased that his buddy had overcome a major mental battle.