London beckons

Learning from the master... Saina Nehwal with her mentor and coach Pullela Gopi Chand. According to Gopi Chand, Saina has the game to trouble the best in the business.-S. S. KUMAR

“Since this is the Olympic year, I don't want to take any chances. I want to keep working hard to realise my childhood dream of winning an Olympic medal,” says Saina Nehwal in a chat with V. V. Subrahmanyam.

Despite losing to the reigning world champion, Wang Yihan, in the women's singles final of the year-ending BWF World Super Series in China in December, Saina Nehwal is delighted that her confidence is back and her fitness is really good.

“Well, it was a performance that was memorable despite not winning (the final) for the simple reason that I had my opponent under pressure quite a few times. It is a different issue that I could not sustain my rhythm right through,” recalled Saina, looking back at the year 2011.

The year was largely disappointing for Saina given the fact that she had won only one Super Series title (the Swiss Open) besides entering three Super Series finals.

“Definitely in terms of winning titles the year might look disappointing. But the fact that I reached three Super Series finals and remained in the top five of the world rankings at the end of the year gives me greater satisfaction,” Saina said.

“The biggest positive of the BWF World Super Series is that I did not feel pressure of any kind. It was one of those rare instances when I was very relaxed and took it match by match. Earlier, there were some thoughts that flashed across my mind of having lost to some of the lesser-known names. But in the World Super Series, it was a different game-plan which, I feel, worked a lot,” said the 21-year-old player, who gave her mentor and India's Chief National Coach Pullela Gopi Chand a lot of credit.

“I am not dispirited about Saina losing the final. The important thing was that she had her moments when the Chinese player was under tremendous pressure, especially in the first game,” analysed Gopi Chand, the former All England champion. “There are some very good positives from this World Series performance for Saina, the most important being her confidence. She raised the level of her game through the event and came up with some unbelievable strokes,” he pointed out.

“After all the disappointments in 2011, Saina can still take pride in her performance in the final (BWF Super Series). She reminded everyone that she has the game to trouble the best in the business, and that she is the best medal hope in badminton for India at the London Olympics. Definitely we will focus on some key areas in the run-up to the Olympics,” added Gopi.

What gave Saina the maximum satisfaction in 2011?

“Apparently sport is not about winning alone. There are moments that are much sweeter than winning titles. The one moment that I will cherish for a long time is when the Chinese fans walked up to me recently to remind me that I remained the biggest threat to their players. This is something very interesting and also gives you a feeling of being right up there,” Saina said.

“For someone who started 2011 with an ankle injury and finished the year with an appearance in the final of the World Super Series and the world No. 4 ranking, it should be satisfying if not truly memorable,” she added.

Looking ahead, Saina said, “Definitely there is no end to keep improving. Every effort will be made to realise one of my dreams — to win an Olympic medal.

“Well, 2012 is a big year for obvious reason: the London Olympics is scheduled to be held in July-August. So the focus will be on the biggest sporting event. I am not so naive to ignore the plain fact that to win a medal you have to come up with a high quality game for four or five matches in a row. We are already in the preparatory mode.

“I have to really work hard with Gopi Sir ahead of the Olympics. The focus during the run-up to the London Games will be on plugging some gaps in my game. I think I am really attacking well, if you look at the way my body smashes worked against Yihan Wang in the World Super Series final.”

In world badminton, according to Gopi, there is very little difference between the players in the top 10 and all that matters is how well you organise your game and play to your strengths in a given situation.

“I don't think I have done anything wrong in the last year which suggested that I was not worthy of the World No. 4 ranking. I am happy that I am a force to reckon with, especially for the Chinese players,” said Saina.

The Rajiv Khel Ratna Award winner is banking on the four-week camp being planned just before the Olympics. “That should be ideal, for it gives you time to take a critical look ahead of the Games and come up with corrective measures,” Saina said.

“Winning medals for my country always brings a rare sense of pride in me. I felt great when I won the gold at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. It is a different feeling when you play for your country in events such as the Asian Games and the Olympics. There is a special aura to your achievements in these events,” she said.

“Honestly, I am not feeling the pressure of expectations anymore. In a way I have got used to it. There is no doubt that many of you expect me to keep winning always which, again, is not so easy,” Saina explained.

In a significant move that indicates her intense desire to do very well at the 2012 Olympics, Saina has sent out a message to her manager asking not to expect her to stretch too far with regard to endorsements. “I cannot afford to spend more than two days a month at the most for these things (endorsements). The focus is on my game and these things will definitely follow if you keep doing well at the highest level. Since this is the Olympic year, I don't want to take any chances. I want to keep working hard to realise my childhood dream of winning an Olympic medal,” she said.