Another Marin nightmare

Needs to be more consistent… Saina Nehwal went all out in the quarterfinals against Indonesia’s Lindaweni Fanetri, but could not reproduce the intensity a second time.-PICS:REUTERS

Saina Nehwal winning India’s first ever silver medal at the World Championship was, without doubt, the biggest takeaway for the country. By Rakesh Rao.

Over the past few years, the steady rise of Indians in the world of badminton is best accentuated by the fact that more homebred talents are winning titles than ever before. No wonder, Saina Nehwal and K. Srikanth found themselves seeded to be in the semi-finals of the World Championship, something unprecedented for the nation in the premier event. Though World No. 3 Srikanth fell early, the second-ranked Saina (she climbed to World No. 1 despite finishing runner-up at the Worlds) ensured the Indian interest stayed alive until the final afternoon.

Saina returning with India’s first ever silver medal from the World Championship was, without doubt, the biggest takeaway for the country. P. V. Sindhu and the duo of G. Jwala and Ashwini Ponappa reaching the quarterfinals ensured that India had a few more positives than in the preceding years from the World Championship.

Sindhu’s second career-victory over Olympic champion Li Xuerui signalled her comeback to the top league after stress-fracture on the left foot had spoilt much of her season this year. For Jwala and Ashwini, the performance was heartening as they upstaged eighth-seeded Japanese Raika Kakiiwa and Miyuki Maeda in the pre-quarterfinals. Creditably, despite facing all the odds at home, this was the second time that Jwala and Ashwini made the last-eight stage of the championship.

On the downside, Commonwealth Games gold medallist P. Kashyap making a second-round exit came as a big disappointment particularly after he had raised hopes with his upset victory over World No. 1 Chen Long in the Indonesian Open in June. Chen Long retained his crown at the World Championship, defeating Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia 21-14, 21-17 in the final.

But clearly, Saina’s performance pushed everything else into the background. After losing five times, in straight games, at the quarterfinal stage of the World Championship, she finally broke through this year. Facing former champion Wang Yihan, who held a 9-1 head-to-head advantage at the start of the season, Saina managed to repeat the result seen at this year’s All England Championship and made the semi-finals for the first time.

Here, it is important to reflect on the fact that in her previous five quarterfinal appearances, Saina lost four times to Chinese rivals. So, it was a huge moment in Saina’s career when she battled to a 21-15, 19-21, 21-19 triumph over her nemesis after trailing for the better part of the decider.

Clearly, this was Saina’s best match in the championship and she looked prepared to outwit surprise semi-finalist and home favourite Lindaweni Fanetri, who had ousted former champion Ratchanok Intanon on the way.

From Saina’s point of view, Fanetri’s quarterfinal victory over fourth seed Tai Tzu Ying was a big relief. It must be remembered that the girl from Chinese Taipei has beaten Saina five times in their last six meetings.

A much-relieved Saina took on Fanetri, who was, understandably, backed by a vociferous home crowd. The Indonesian sprained her right knee early in the match and looked uncomfortable on several occasions. Saina did win in straight games but made far too many errors to look prepared for the final.

The winning feeling... Spain's Carolina Marin reacts after defeating Saina Nehwal of India in the final.-

In the final, Saina was up against defending champion and top seed Carolina Marin. The Spaniard has enjoyed a stupendous 12 months that saw her win the World crown and the All England besides two Super Series titles.

Saina, who beat Carolina to win the Syed Modi Grand Prix Gold title in Lucknow in January for a 3-0 head-to-head score, was looking to avenge the defeat suffered in the All England final in March. It may be recalled that Saina had won the first game and led 10-6 in the second before Carolina turned the tables in an emphatic fashion in London.

Carolina, nursing a foot injury before the World Championship, had played to her growing reputation by scripting some memorable fight-backs. Saina had to be wary of the Spaniard’s fighting abilities. But once the final began, Carolina was in control and Saina, on the defensive.

Looking a bit downcast by her standards, Saina depended far too much on her defensive skills and allowed Carolina to dictate the pace of the rallies. Somewhat passive in her approach, Saina was seen as playing the second fiddle to Carolina, who produced more forceful finishes and established a big lead to seal the first game though Saina did manage to make it look close.

In the second game, Saina raised visions of forcing the match into the decider when leading 12-6, but Carolina was not to be denied for long. Seven straight points for Carolina following some long, exciting rallies saw Saina trail for the first time in the second game. Undeterred, Saina kept alive her hopes until she led 18-17 before Carolina produced another series of points to hold two championship points. Saina saved one and Carolina converted the second.

As seen so often in the past, Saina failed to stitch together more than one good performance during a week. She gave it her all in the quarterfinals and could not reproduce the intensity a second time. This is one area where Saina and her coach will have to work on. Though Saina is considered to be mentally very tough on the court, it was clear that she needs to be more consistent in the big matches.

It was clear that Carolina was the better player on the day. Saina’s defensive approach coupled with her uncharacteristic errors at the net prevented her from creating winning chances. Carolina played as though she had nothing to lose. She stuck to her game — furious smashes, deceptive retrieves from the back of the court, used her toss-and-drop game effectively and kept Saina guessing.

As Carolina said later, “I knew she was more tired than me. I just kept thinking of each point, just wanted to enjoy the final and the crowd. I feel happier this time compared to last time. Both experiences have been great. I felt at home because the crowd was chanting my name. This year, it was more difficult to win the title. I had a foot injury last month, I thought I couldn’t play. I started playing two weeks ago and just wanted to enjoy the tournament.”

On her part, Saina accepted it was not her day. “I didn’t play my best, I could’ve done better. In the second game, I had a lead, but points went by very quickly and within no time, she was level. I could’ve been more patient during those four or five points.”

Coach Vimal Kumar was clear about what made the difference on the day. “Saina’s net-play let her down. She appeared content defending and the initiative to attack was not visible.”

On the brighter side, Saina became the only badminton player from the country to hold Olympic and World Championship medals. She broke a jinx by going beyond the quarterfinals and remains on course to be a serious contender for another Olympic medal in Rio in a year’s time.