No hurdles for Saina

The National Champions, Saina Nehwal and Chetan Anand(below).-RANJEET KUMAR The National Champions, Saina Nehwal and Chetan Anand(below).

In the absence of the nine-time champion Aparna Popat the women's field lacked depth. As a result, Saina Nehwal had an easy run to her maiden National title. K. Keerthivasan reports.

The question on everybody's lips was whether the Bihar Badminton Association (BBA) would be able to conduct the BSNL Inter-state/Inter-zonal and Senior National Championships in Patna without any major hitches. The doubts were genuine and no malice was intended, for the last time the BBA hosted the Mini Nationals in 2002, the roof of the indoor stadium was not complete, while the flooring was hastily done. Consequently, the association drew a lot of flak from the players.

This time, however, the BBA had done its homework well. The Secretariat Sports Club and the Physical College (where the Mini Nationals were held) had perfect playing conditions. And the players and the coaches were all praise for BBA's efficiency.

So, the conditions were ideal for Saina Nehwal (PSPB) and the 17-year-old girl from Hyderabad displayed wonderful anticipation, speed and power to claim her maiden women's title. Twice before, Saina lost to Aparna Popat in the final.

In the absence of Aparna, the nine-time champion, who withdrew citing a wrist injury, the women's field lacked depth. Fresh from her remarkable run in 2006, when she won the Philippines Open and the Indian Open, Saina was in ominous form. But to be honest, Saina was rarely tested in either the team event or the Open Nationals.

B. R. Meenakshi (PSPB) has the potential and a game similar to Saina's, but lacks the tactical and mental attributes to match the Hyderabad girl.

RANJEET KUMAR

Another gifted player, Trupti Murgunde, many observers feel, is also capable of challenging Saina in the long run provided she works on her fitness and court movements.

Aditi Mutatkar (PSPB) fought Saina tooth and nail in the Open National final. A wonderfully deceptive player, Aditi gave the top-seeded Saina a scare in the first game. She showed that she could emerge as a worthy challenger to Saina in the near future.

"Saina is quicker. She has played a lot of international tournaments and this is the first time I am playing her after the Calicut Junior Nationals. The more I play and get international exposure, the more I will improve," said Aditi, who trains at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Bangalore.

While power and fitness are Saina's strengths, deception and wrist play were perceived to be her weak points. However, the variations she showed against Aditi, especially in the second game, proved her detractors wrong. Saina played hard and fast, giving Aditi little time to work on her strategies.

Saina's international calendar this year is packed. After the National Games in Guwahati, she will play in the German Open, All-England Championship and the ABC Senior Championship.

Saina has the potential to excel in international tournaments. "I keep losing in the pre-quarterfinals and the quarterfinals. I hope to improve my performance in the international tournaments," she said.

Chetan Anand seemed to have lost form, after winning the Hyderabad Nationals in 2004. In the subsequent Nationals in Jamshedpur, he lost to Utsav Mishra in the quarterfinals, and in Bangalore last year he bowed out to Arvind Bhat in the semifinals. This year, Chetan made a conscious decision to train with coach S. M. Arif and Govardhan Reddy and did not take part in any tournament for a couple of months leading up to the Nationals. His decision paid off.

Throughout the Nationals, Chetan was ruthless against his opponents. The only player who troubled him was Ajay Jayaram of Maharashtra. In the team and Open events, Ajay, 19, extended Chetan to three games.

The men's losing finalist Anand Pawar has a neat and sharp game, both at the net and from the backcourt. However, Chetan hardly gave him any leeway in the final.

The defeat of the top-seed and two-time champion Anup Sridhar (PSPB) was shocking. In the quarterfinals against Ravinder Singh of Uttar Pradesh, the elegant Anup appeared to be cruising before cracking under pressure much to everybody's surprise. He made some uncharacteristic unforced errors at the net, conceding crucial points.

Ravinder, to his credit, played without any inhibition. He kept the pressure on Anup. From 17-18 in the decider, Ravinder, who trains at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy, reeled off four points in a row to create the biggest upset of the championship.

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Aparna Popat-RAJEEV BHATT

Aparna Popat equalled Prakash Padukone's record of nine consecutive National titles in Bangalore last year. Some observers indicated that Bangalore could perhaps be her last Nationals. Ganguly Prasad, the SAI coach in Bangalore, said "Aparna has nothing much to prove in the Nationals" and that in the forthcoming season or so, she might concentrate on international tournaments to improve her ranking.

Talking to this writer from Mumbai late last month, Aparna said she hadn't made up her mind as to when she would resume training. She said she needed some more time to recover from her wrist injury.

For all you know, Aparna might come back in the next Nationals — to surpass Padukone's record.

Ideal pair

Chetan Anand and Jwala Gutta make an ideal husband-wife pair. During Chetan's matches, one could always spot Jwala shouting words of encouragement and giving suggestions to her husband. Jwala, a very good doubles player, kept motivating Chetan whenever she was not playing. During the prize distribution function, photographers kept clicking pictures of Chetan and Jwala kissing the men's singles trophy.

Players' welfare?

When the quarterfinal and semifinal matches of the Nationals were scheduled for the same day, the officials came in for severe criticism from some former players and coaches. Vimal Kumar, former International and former National coach, argued that sufficient rest should be given to the players. "They (the referees) could have had the quarterfinals a day before the semifinals. Only when you give rest to the players can you see quality matches," he said.

S. Muralidharan, international referee and vice-president of the Badminton Association of India, said the argument of the former players and coaches was valid. He also said that he planned to take up the issue at the next BAI AGM or with the technical delegates.