Of guts and grace

Saina Nehwal... going great guns.-VIVEK BENDRE

Following her remarkable performance at the 2006 World Junior Championship in Incheon, Saina Nehwal put up another sterling display to win the Indian International in Mumbai. Nandakumar Marar reports.

The support system is falling into place for Saina Nehwal. Pullela Gopichand is at hand as coach to plan her training schedules and choose the tournaments for her to compete in. Mittal Champions Trust's financial support in this regard has been timely. Dilnaz has come in as a trainer to hone her fitness, while mother Usha Rani is at her side to keep the 17-year-old rooted to reality.

Saina, however, knows that when she steps on the court she is all by herself, having to take those split-second decisions. And she is beginning to get it all right, as was seen from her display at the IndianOil Indian International badminton championships in Mumbai, coming on the heels of her remarkable showing at the 2006 World Junior Championship in Incheon, South Korea.

Saina entered the Mumbai tournament as the top seed. And three matches later, she walked off with the women's singles title after shredding South Korean Soo Young Jang's game to pieces (21-9, 21-14) in 30 entertaining minutes. In the semi-finals, she posted a comfortable 21-15, 21-18 victory over another Korean, Kim Moon Hi.

Gopichand, who arrived in Mumbai on the final day, didn't have to exert his vocal chords much as Saina showed the maturity to handle the situation and her opponent.

Saina, who has now beaten Soo Young Jang twice in three weeks, kept the rallies to the minimum and hit low, angled returns to open up a 6-0 lead in the first game of the final. She was at her best, controlling the game from the net. "I had lost to her in the World Juniors' team event, so beating her in the individual event there and again in Mumbai feels good. She likes to rally and is not comfortable near the net, so my plan was clear. Winning the final was easier than I had expected," said Saina, who at No. 34 (as of November 16, 2006) is the highest ranked Indian woman in the world.

Saina, who is now looking forward to testing herself against the Chinese in the competitions ahead, is aware of the enormity of the task at hand. "The Chinese have so many world-class players that it is tough to keep track of everyone from there. They field different players in different events, depending upon the level of the tournament. The Chinese girl I faced in the World Junior Championship final, Wang Yihan, was a new face for me though she had defeated one-time World No. 1 Xie Xing Fang (currently World No. 2)."

Following her remarkable performances in the Philippines Open, where she won the title, and the World Junior Championship, where she entered the final, Saina appears to be better prepared in facing up to new challenges. "I will not be a new player next season. The world's top teams and coaches get videos of prospective opponents and prepare accordingly. So I am aware of the need to play better next time," observed Sania, who also studies video footages of world's leading players to sharpen her game.

The Indian International Championships was only a Satellite-level competition among the Asian teams, with Denmark bringing in the European flavour. The real big test for Saina will be in December at the Doha Asian Games, where top names in the game will feature in the women's singles draw (India is not taking part in the women's team competition).

The Indian selectors chose Saina for the Asian Games with the idea of giving her the exposure. "We don't want to put pressure on Saina by expecting her to win a medal," said a Badminton Federation of India official prior to the Mumbai event. However, it won't be a surprise if the World Junior finalist shakes up the draw in Doha.

The pressures of expectations don't seem to matter for Saina simply because she enjoys competing in tournaments. "I am confident if I am playing regularly. So keeping away from tournaments because of the pressures due to others' expectations does not work for me," she said.

As for choosing tournaments, Saina said: "I leave it to Gopi Sir to decide."

In the men's section of the Indian International Championships, Nikhil Kanetkar fell one step short of rehabilitating himself. Overlooked for the National camps and named first reserve in the Indian men's team for Doha Asian Games, the left-hander appeared to be in the mood to defy expert opinion on his abilities.

Working his way up the main draw, the No. 7 seed outlasted younger and fitter Hoon Min Jung (South Korea) in the semi-final. However, he could not raise his game to the same level the following day against Cheol Ho Lee in the final, going down to the South Korean in two games.

THE RESULTS All finals.

Women's singles: Saina Nehwal (India) bt Soo Young Jang (South Korea) 21-9, 21-14.

Women's doubles: Young Kyung Jung & Kim Min Jung (South Korea) bt Jwala Gutta & Shruti Kurien (India) 21-18, 21-19.

Men's singles: Cheol Ho Lee (South Korea) bt Nikhil Kanetkar (India) 21-11, 21-11.

Men's doubles: Sanave Thomas & Rupesh Kumar (India) bt Cheng Peng Soon & Cheng Hun Pin (Malaysia) 19-21, 21-8, 22-20.

Mixed doubles: Hoon Min Jun & Youn Kyong Jung (South Korea) bt Kim Young Sun & Sun In Jang (South Korea) 21-12, 19-21, 21-18.