A big boost ahead of the Olympics

AP

The expectations of an Olympic medal have obviously risen from Saina Nehwal following her victories in the Thailand Open and the Indonesian Open. How she copes with the mounting expectations and the expected opposition from the Chinese brigade remains to be seen. One hopes the lessons learnt from the Beijing Games take Saina to a new high in London, writes Rakesh Rao.

In August 2008, Saina Nehwal and coach Pullela Gopi Chand came out of Sports Minister M. S. Gill's room at Shastri Bhawan in New Delhi and were soon surrounded by the waiting mediapersons. This was after her arrival from Beijing where she had lost the Olympic Games quarterfinals to Indonesia's Maria Kristin Yulianti after leading 11-3 in the deciding game.

How did Saina deal with this narrow defeat, Gopi was asked.

He just smiled and said, “I want Saina to answer this question. You'll get an insight into how she deals with defeats in general, and how she handled this one, in particular.”

Before long, Saina faced the question and her reply reflected her positive approach. “No. The defeat has not given me sleepless nights. In fact, I've learnt a big lesson from this match. The way Yulianti fought back, it convinced me that, in future, if I am trailing by eight points in the deciding game, I, too, can win.”

Almost four years after making that statement, Saina has given several examples of her enhanced self-belief in crunch moments. The triumph in the 2010 Commonwealth Games final stands out from among the many victories she has pulled off from the brink of defeat. Saina's results have proved that the defeat in Beijing actually helped her think better when trailing.

Her recent back-to-back titles — in the Thailand Open and the Indonesian Open — may be testimony to her growing confidence on the court, but the manner in which they came reflect the young lady's maturity and the reinforced sense of purpose.

In the Indonesian Open, Saina played the longest match of her life on way to winning the biggest title of her career. Significantly, Saina emerged the winner as the fifth seed for the first time in a “full-field” and that too after defeating two higher-ranked Chinese girls. What more, she also collected her career's biggest winner's cheque — worth $48,750.

Stepping it up, together… Pullela Gopi Chand and his ward Saina Nehwal make a great team. The Chief National Coach is well aware of the tough challenges that await Saina at the London Olympics.-S.S. KUMAR

Saina dealt with the prospect of losing twice in three days in what was her last tournament appearance before the Olympic Games in London. Only a closer scrutiny of her journey in these two events will help bring out the importance of these triumphs. Of course, the timing of these victories brightens Saina's chances of making the medal-bracket at the upcoming Olympics.

Perhaps, the second round defeat at the hands of Korea's Bae Youn-joo in the Indian Open in New Delhi in April proved an eye-opener for Saina. Before a packed house at the Siri Fort Stadium, she crashed to a stunning 19-21, 10-21 defeat.

Saina's tame surrender and sluggish movements on the court in the match had given rise to questions about her physical state. Being on a high-protein diet and having lost five kilograms, Saina appeared fit, but the way she played against the Korean was far from convincing.

Gopi had assured that the six weeks before the Thailand Open would be used well to sharpen Saina's preparedness. Saina, too, since her Swiss Open victory in March, was looking to play against the leading Chinese. “I have worked hard for them and my confidence is really high,” was the assurance from the strongest non-Chinese player in women's badminton.

It was far from a smooth ride for Saina in these two events with contrasting fields. Saina, expected to win the Thailand Open in the absence of the leading Chinese challengers, was tested several times by lesser-known names. She dropped a game each in the opening round and the final besides being taken to extended games twice in her campaign — all by Thai girls.

These testing matches proved a blessing in disguise for the gritty Indian. She came to Jakarta for the Indonesian Open brimming with confidence, though not expected to win the title. After all, the Indian was seeded fifth behind the world's top-four Chinese girls.

Unlike the Thailand Open, categorised by the Badminton World Federation as a ‘Grand Prix Gold' event offering $120,000, the Indonesian Open is the second richest event in the world. Upgraded to the status of Super Series Premier last year, the Indonesian Open offers a prize-money of $650,000, next only to the Korean Open which has a prize-fund of a million dollars!

For Saina, Jakarta has proved to be a highly fruitful venue. She won the Indonesian Open in 2009, 2010, lost the final to world No. 1 Wang Yihan of China last year and regained the title this year at the expense of another Chinese, Li Xuerui.

But her latest campaign was clearly the toughest of her career. She needed three games to tame Japan's Sato Sayaka and Indonesia's Yuswandari Aprilla in the first two rounds. These victories set up Saina's quarterfinals against Wang Shixian, the Chinese third seed. Saina had first played Shixian in the 2010 World Championship quarterfinals and lost tamely. But the Indian settled the score four months later by bouncing back from the loss in the first game to win in the Hong Kong Open. This year, it was their second meeting with Saina having proved stronger in three games in the Swiss Open.

The face-off in Jakarta was seen as a very important one for Saina. For long, she had not performed above her seeding or beaten higher-ranked players in title-winning campaigns. The 96-minute match tested her temperament and resolve to the hilt. After Shixian saved a game-point in the opening game before Saina prevailed, the second game proved a heart-breaking one for the Indian. Leading 20-16 and holding four match-points, Saina could do little as Shixian took the game 23-21 to force the decider.

This was the crucial phase of the match. It was clear that Saina had to focus on the deciding game ahead rather than regret missing four match-clinching opportunities. It was this game that reinforced Saina's growth as a champion performer. With renewed determination, Saina took the court and opened up leads of 10-6 and 19-15 before the determined Chinese caught up. Saina once again showed her steely resolve to clinch the final two points for one of the most satisfying victories. No wonder, Gopi described it as an “epic” encounter.

Victor and the vanquished… Indonesian Open winner Saina Nehwal with China's Li Xuerui during the medals ceremony after the women's singles final at the Istora Stadium in Jakarta.-AP

Up next, Korea's Ji Hyun Sung — the conqueror of second-seeded Chinese Wang Xin — stood between Saina and a place in the final. Saina, expected to win, faced a game-point in the first game and admirable resistance from the Korean for the better part of the second before recording a 22-20, 21-18 triumph.

Considering the previous round's energy-sapping victory, the only straight-game victory for Saina in the competition could not have come on a better day. The 50-minute encounter also tested Saina's stamina and recovery. She came up trumps on both counts.

The final against Li Xuerui, the reigning All England and Asian champion, had its shares of thrills. Xuerui, fresh from knocking out World No. 1 Wang Yihan, raced away with the opening game. Saina saved two match-points in the second game before winning in 65 minutes. The 13-21, 22-20, 21-19 victory also helped Saina end a three-match losing streak to the fourth-seeded Chinese and improved her head-to-head record to 2-4.

These two weeks saw Saina win six out of 10 matches in three games. No doubt, there is plenty of work to be done before the Olympic Games, but Saina's stamina and the consistency in retrieving shuttles from either flanks have shown improvement.

Mentally, Saina is known to be very tough. Now the time has come for her to iron out the rough edges in her Olympic preparations. The recent titles are good enough to boost Saina's confidence for the tougher battles in London. But after her recent success, the Chinese are sure to come very hard at the Indian in the Olympic Games.

It must also be remembered that so far in the World Championships, Olympics or Asian Games, the Chinese have not let Saina perform to expectations. Therefore, Saina has a lot to prove in London.

Who knows it better than Saina and Gopi Chand. The soft-spoken coach is well aware of the tough challenges that await Saina. The expectations of an Olympic medal have obviously risen from Saina following her victories in the Thailand Open and the Indonesian Open.

How Saina copes with the mounting expectations and the expected opposition from the Chinese brigade remains to be seen. One hopes the lessons learnt from the Beijing Games take Saina to a new high in London.