Updated: March 5, 2021 2:05:13 pm
Since the start of 2019, Saina Nehwal has had a total of 10 instances of a 20-19 scoreline going into deuce at all levels of international tournaments, either in the second or third sets. She could be leading in some situations, or have fought gamely from large trailing leads to cover ground – but the 30-year-old has invariably gone onto lose in all those matches at the crunch.
It was the same story at the Swiss Open, as Saina chases Olympic qualification at the Super 300 event. This time, she flubbed two match points against Thai Phittayaporn Chaiwan – 10 years her junior – and ended up exiting in the first round, harming her qualification chances further.
This phase of losing from the brink after rallying for a fightback – littered with 21-19 or 23-21 last set scores – or not doing enough to drive home the advantage, has coincided with the Tokyo Olympic qualification period. It is at the heart of Saina’s slump.
At Basel, Saina whirred her arms double quick, played some delectable cross drops and showed her legendary fighting spirit against Chaiwan – a fleet footed youngster. But despite dragging herself out of trouble with a lot of grit, the Indian, soon to turn 31, fell short of the decisive, definitive finishing stroke as she lost 16-21, 21-17, 21-23 in a quick-paced hustle fight.
The Indian, steeply falling down the ranking charts, could not be faulted for want of effort. Or endurance. She’s never been the quickest on the court. But she has equipped herself at every stage with a bunch of strokes that can keep her in a rally and frustrate opponents who expect her to fall by the wayside. So, it’s routine to watch her make up a good lead – even 6-7 points and arrive at that 20-19 cliff. Only to struggle to finish off.
On Tuesday at St Jakobshalle, Saina negotiated those treacherous tell tale signs of a body that has waded into storms and taken the brunt on the international circuit for half her life. She was poised at 20-19 in the decider.
But Saina just could not get the one winner needed to push her to live to fight another day for her Olympic dream.
— Saina Nehwal (@NSaina) March 2, 2021
The end came from a limp straight return to the net – a nothing stroke, that carried the scars of the previous point. Her second match point fluffed, Saina’a return floated just wide – or so the lineswoman declared to snatch the lead away from her at 21-22. Uncannily like the Basel World Championships in 2019 when a line call against Mia Blichfeldt affected her so bad that she botched the next few moments in a nervous blur, and exited in tears.
On Tuesday, doubles coach Mathias Boe sitting for her match had helped her pull herself out of the sluggish start, even as Parupalli Kashyap played on the adjacent court. But you suspect, a moment like that with Saina’a confidence not in finest of fettles, needed Pullela Gopichand on the coach’s chair.
Some of Nehwal’s most poised performances have come with Vimal Kumar prepping her for tournaments. But in close, tight games in the past, when she’s not quite as self assured as her stern visage might look, it has been the national coach who’s given the most pointed instructions that Saina has blindly followed and won, something Kashyap attested to when she last won a title.
Speaking to the Express in August of 2018 soon after the World Championships at Nanjing, China, Parupalli Kashyap recalled a similar situation against Thai Intanon Ratchanok in the pre-quarters. Saina led 21-16, 16-12 before the Thai threw one last-gasp assault to level at 19-all. “At 19-all, a lot of things come into play – pressure, tiredness, and if you can’t close out a match, the feeling carries on into third game, and you can lose from there. Ratchanok had won the last 4 points, so Gopi’s input was crucial there,” Kashyap had said back then.
Asking Nehwal to be ready for a sharp return on her forehand where she had been bleeding points, Gopichand would ask her to hit to the centre of the court, while the Thai was expecting the return on the flanks. “It was Gopi’s intuition. It’s where the coach matters,” Kashyap had said. “We all heard it – it was spot-on. He told her to ‘Hit centre’.”
We all can get these intuitions, but it works in Gopi’s case more than most,” Kashyap had added. “Also, players like Srikanth or me will think it through, and analyse. With Saina – she goes blank in 19-19 situation, so she heard the coach and just followed the instruction without over-thinking it,” he explained.
Nehwal herself had told BWF: “After 19-all those two points, Gopi Sir played a big role there. The way he told me what to do, and I followed that, and the game turned in my favour. After19-all it was all strategy… till then I retrieved well. In the end, Gopi Sir gave me those very crucial points.”
A lot has changed since. Including the ferocity of that irretrievable straight smash. As well as Saina’s own willingness to buy into the top coaches (foreign or Indian)’s advice. But she’s on the brink of a 20-19 now-or-never of her Olympic career.
There are half a dozen tournaments lined up till June where Saina can secure her qualification if she can fix this hurdle – whether a mental block or a technical error in shot selection. While Kashyap can help her navigate through training and strategising, either Saina will need to up her finishing game, or get her coaching bench sorted to negotiate the final finishing kill.
IN THE CLUTCH
All the times since 2019 All England when Saina Nehwal couldn’t finish off.
All England 2019 vs Tai Tzy Ying (QF). 15-21, 19-21.
Badminton Asian Championship 2019 vs Akane Yamaguchi (QF). 13-21, 23-21, 16-21.
NZ Open 2019 vs Wang Zhi Yi (R32). 16-21, 23-21, 4-21.
World Championship 2019 vs Mia Blichfeldt (R16) 21-15, 25-27, 12-21.
Denmark Open 2019 vs Sayaka Takahashi (R32) 15-21, 21-23.
French Open 2019 vs An Se Young (QF) 20-22, 21-23.
Hong Kong Open 2019 vs Cai Yan Yan (R32) 13-21, 20-22.
Spain Masters 2020 vs Busanan Ongbamrungphan (QF) 20-22, 19-21.
Uber Cup Test vs Akane Yamaguchi (group game) 25-23, 12-21, 25-27.
Swiss Open 2021 vs Phittayaporn Chaiwan (R32) 16-21, 21-17, 21-23.
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