Just the kind of boost Saina needed

The Australian Open victory was indeed a reflection of Saina Nehwal’s growing confidence in her staying power on the court.

Saina Nehwal surely looks ready for a podium finish in Rio.   -  AP

Saina Nehwal’s triumph in the Australian Open is just the kind of boost she needed from her last competitive event before the Rio Olympics. The victorious campaign ended a title-drought that followed Saina’s success at the India Open in March last year.

A gap of 14 months between titles can be a major blow to the confidence of any top-10 player in an individual sport. Saina is known to ride more on confidence than just mere preparation.

During this unusually long title-drought, Saina lost to players she was expected to beat, suffered an injury late last year and lost time to find her match-fitness to return to the circuit. Obviously, Saina’s confidence took a beating.

Eighth-ranked Saina, who last held the World No. 1 spot in October 2015, has surely worked a lot harder on her fitness, thanks to trainer Dekline Leitao, than on any other aspect of the game. Without doubt, after moving to Bengaluru to work under Vimal Kumar, Saina loves the off-the-court freedom, something that her former coach P. Gopi Chand was not in favour of.

During the past week, one could see Saina moving better on the court. She hit more strokes than she usually does. Her ability to retrieve repeatedly was indeed a revelation. It was this fine mix of attack and retrieving that stood out as she defeated two former World champions in successive days to move into the final.

In the quarterfinal, Saina ran into World No. 4 Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon, who was looking for her fourth super series title this season. Though Saina went into the match holding a 6-5 advantage in head-to-head clashes, the petite Thai carried the confidence of having won their last two encounters, that too, in straight games.

As it turned out, Saina came out stronger 28-26, 21-16. In the close first game, Saina converted her seventh game-point minutes after the Thai squandered the lone opportunity to take the game.

Upbeat after this hard-earned victory, Saina was ready for Wang Yihan, her nemesis for long. Yihan, runner-up to fellow Chinese Li Xuerui in the 2012 Olympic Games final, had won nine out of the first 10 encounters against the Indian.

And the lone “victory” for Saina was the result of an injury to Yihan who pulled out in the second game of their contest in the 2012 Denmark Open.

But in the last six encounters since the 2015 All England Open, Saina has beaten Yihan four times. It must be remembered that Yihan, too, has been nursing a back injury from late last year. But credit to Saina for conquering the demons within and beating the World No. 2 player, 21-8, 21-12 in the semifinals. This was after Yihan had tamed Saina in straight games in the two previous encounters this year.

In fact, on her way to the semifinals, Yihan had taken out Tai Tzu Ying, the ninth-ranked girl from Chinese Taipei.

From Saina’s point of view, this result was a source of huge relief since Tai has beaten her in each of their six encounters since 2014. In fact, in the two meetings this year — in the All England Open and Malaysia Open — Tai dismissed Saina in straight games!

Therefore, Saina had every reason to believe that things were going her way. Up next was Sun Yu, the fourth strongest Chinese lady in the game. Having beaten her last five times, out of six meetings, Saina was ready to repeat the dose to her six-footer rival.

After losing the plot in the opening game, Saina fought right back to take the second. She led by a point at the final switch-over, stayed ahead throughout the tense closing stages of the match and converted her third championship point.

During the 11-21, 21-14, 21-19 victory in 71 minutes, Saina displayed tremendous retrieving abilities against Sun, who unleashed a barrage of smashes. Smartly, Saina chose to attack furiously and moved her rival to all corners of the court. This ploy is something that Saina will have to successfully adopt in order to keep her rivals guessing in Rio.

Saina was seen stroking the shuttle well and retrieving relentlessly to tire out her rival. It is well known that unless a player is supremely fit, the all-attacking approach does not help in winning day after day. It was indeed a reflection of Saina’s growing confidence in her staying power on the court.

In the next seven weeks, players around the world will be working to sharpen their skills before leaving for Rio. Saina is looking fitter and moving well on the court. She needs to be more consistent with her attacking strokes, going for the lines on the big points and ready to retrieve patiently.

Going by her showing in Sydney, Saina surely looks ready for a podium finish in Rio. Apart from her preparations and training for the Games, much will depend on her draw. If Saina runs into the likes of World No. 1 Carolina Marin of Spain or her latest worry Tai Tzu Ying before the semifinals, her mental toughness, will be tested to the hilt.

But Saina needs no reminding that an Olympic medal does not come easy for anyone.

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