It’s not the end of the road

Despite the defeat in the final of the All-England Championship, given her upward swing that began in September last year, the current season could well see Saina Nehwal scale new peaks, writes Rakesh Rao.

Saina Nehwal may have fallen short of winning the title that India loves, but she managed to move closer to her dream of becoming the World No. 1. The defeat to World champion Carolina Marin in the All-England Championship title match was indeed disappointing, but Saina’s journey looked impressive until she imploded in the second half of the final.

Though there are bigger titles on the badminton circuit, the All-England continues to enjoy a special place because it was considered the ‘unofficial’ World Championship until the official one was introduced in 1977. Therefore, to win a title that has a history dating back to 1899 is always special.

From Prakash Nath (finalist in 1947) to Prakash Padukone (the 1980 champion and 1981 finalist) to P. Gopi Chand (winner in 2001), the All-England Championship gave Indians a reason to rejoice.

Fourteen seasons after Gopi’s triumph, Saina came close to beating the field that included the best in the game. Seeded No. 3, Saina raised visions of scoring her fourth victory, in as many meetings, against Marin before the Spaniard turned the match on its head. In terms of sheer quality of performance, Saina’s triumph in the 2012 Indonesian Open should top the charts, though many remember the London Olympics bronze as the symbol of her best display.

When performing on the big stage like the World Championship, Asian Games and the Asian Championship though, Saina’s record looks far less impressive. While the young P. V. Sindhu has managed to return with two successive World Championship bronze medals, Saina is still looking for her first. However, should Saina continue her upward swing that began in September last, 2015 could well see her scale new peaks.

Beginning September, Saina chose to part ways with her long-time coach and mentor P. Gopi Chand and joined hands with former National champion Vimal Kumar in Bangalore. At this point, Saina was grappling with self-doubts, and her World ranking that plummeted to a low of nine in June (when Sindhu was No. 10!) was only marginally better at seven. Before the Asian Games, Saina moved to Bangalore to train under Vimal for two weeks.

Vimal sounded pragmatic about Saina’s decision. “She was worried when results did not happen the way she wanted. It happens to every player at the top, especially if you are playing individual sport. You need to move away from routine and bring in something different into your game, into your thinking,” he said.

India could only manage a team bronze from the Games, but personally for Saina, the triumph over then World No. 4 Sung Ji Hyun in the team event was a positive. Though she lost to Wang Shixian in the quarterfinals of the Denmark Open and French Open, the tide turned for the better with Saina winning the China Open. Here, she defeated three lesser-ranked Chinese girls — Lin Xin, Suo Di and Qin Jinying — on way to the final.

In the Hong Kong Open and the Superseries Finals, Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying ended Saina’s campaign. In fact, Tzu could have proved a tough customer for Saina even in the All-England Championship but Marin stopped her in the semifinals.

In times to come, Saina will surely be looking to settle a score against Tzu. Though Saina leads 5-4 in their head-to-head clashes, Tzu’s four victories have come in the last five meetings, including the last two.

Though Saina opened the year by retaining the Grand Prix title in Lucknow, she was not the favourite in London. She was seeded No. 3, behind an inconsistent Li Xuerui and Wang Yihan. In fact, Yihan had been nursing a back injury from the second half of last year. Against a half-fit Yihan in the quarterfinals, Saina scored a psychologically important victory against her nemesis. Before this, Yihan led Saina 8-1 with her only loss coming in the 2012 Denmark Open where she retired in the second game.

In terms of ranking, too, Saina has gained noticeably after joining hands with Vimal. Ranked No. 7 in September, Saina moved to No. 6 in October, No. 4 by the end of November to No. 2 on March 12!

Prakash Padukone, at whose Academy Saina trains under Vimal, feels Saina is ready to win more titles. “Gopi had done all the hard work. We focus on polishing her game. Vimal looks after her training and gives her individual attention,” he said.

With the leading Chinese girls no longer as consistent as they were before, Saina could well prove Prakash right by dominating the current season. Though Saina has lost to a number of lesser-ranked players in the past two seasons, the recent rise in confidence, to go with the newfound zest in Bangalore, should give Indians reasons to expect bigger deeds from her.