Saina: Back to her Hyderabad nest, what next?

Saina Nehwal, the star badminton campaigner, is back with chief national coach Pullela Gopi Chand at his Academy after a three-year stint with Vimal Kumar in Bengaluru. What plans does she have for her game in the days to come?

The selfie that sealed rapprochement in Glasgow... Saina Nehwal and Pullela Gopichand have buried their differences and will work together again.

For close to one year, Saina Nehwal, the ace woman shuttler who set benchmarks in terms of excellence at the highest level, even for the likes of the current queen of Indian badminton, P. V. Sindhu, has been feeling the hurt at being spoken of very badly after her early exit from the 2016 Rio Olympics.

And, interestingly, the star campaigner is back with chief national coach Pullela Gopi Chand at his Academy after a three-year stint with Vimal Kumar in Bengaluru.

READ: How Saina fared under Gopichand and Vimal Kumar

The reason? “For a while, I have been thinking about moving my training base back to the Gopi Chand Academy and I had a discussion about this with Gopi Sir,” Saina tweeted about this move. “And, I am really thankful to him for agreeing to help me again. At this stage in my career I think he can help me achieve my goals,” the champion shuttler said.

Saina also gracefully thanked Vimal Kumar (coach) for all his support. “I am also very thankful to Vimal Sir for helping me for the last three years. He helped me reach the World No. 1 in the rankings and also win two World championship medals (silver in 2015 and bronze in the recent edition) along with many Super Series titles,” she said.

ALSO READ: Vimal okay with Saina returning to Gopichand academy

And, not surprisingly, she was more keen on talking about the bronze medal she won in the Glasgow World championship than on the subject of moving over to Hyderabad even as she set her targets on qualifying for the year-ending Dubai World Super Series final.

The champion shuttler from Hyderabad feels that the bronze (her second after winning the silver in the 2015 edition) of the Glasgow World Championship recently is immensely satisfying for her.

“There were lots of tough moments for me,” she says. “I had a real tough draw and had to put the best foot forward to beat very tough opponents. Even beating local girl Gilmour was a huge challenge, for she has been playing a very high standard of game of late. She was not as fast as she is now when I played her sometime back,” a visibly contented Saina recalled in an exclusive chat with Sportstar.

“Yes, despite the bronze I am aware that I have to improve a lot on fitness and stamina. But this performance has given me the courage and the confidence that I can step into my own zone very soon,” the 27-year-old London Olympics bronze medallist said.

Saina is relieved after winning her World Championships quarter-final against Scotland's Kirsty Gilmour. Players are improving and matches are becoming tougher, says Saina.   -  AFP

 

“I think it is just a matter of a few months now to regain my old form on all fronts. This performance is truly inspirational for me having come back from a career-threatening knee surgery,” the winner of 10 Super Series titles said.

“I am pleased for the simple reason that not many people thought that I would win a medal this time around. Honestly, even I was not thinking of a medal as I was unseeded after a long time in such a championship. There were no expectations, only a lot of doubts about me. In this backdrop, it was a very emotional bronze when I stood on the podium in Glasgow,” Saina explained. Reflecting on the last one year which she repeats has been full of agonising moments, Saina says that her stamina levels were down after the surgery. “But now I am in rythmn and in good flow, which are essential as I look ahead,” she added. “That is why I feel this Worlds bronze is more satisfying than many of those which I have won before as many people were also very harsh on me after my early exit from the Rio Games,” the former World No. 1 pointed out.

“Yes, there were serious doubts about my recovery after the surgery. It required lots of mental toughness, hard work to be back on the court and this is where I thank Vimal Sir and my parents for their great support when many had actually written me off,” Saina explained.

“To get back the rhythm, it took a long time and I had my own doubts of lasting five full matches in a championship of this stature. But I am glad that my knee is standing up,” says a smiling Saina.

“It took a lot of time for me to strengthen my muscles after the surgery and to get back my rhythm too,” she added.

Referring to the World championship final between Sindhu and Nozomi Okuhara, Saina said long rallies were expected, but honestly not of this kind of a neck and neck fight. “My God, what a final it was! I was surprised by Okuhara’s tenacity and the ability to last three full matches to win the gold. I am not sure even now how she could pull it off as it is so taxing not just physically, but mentally too,” were her compliments to the eventual world champion from Japan. “I have not seen a final like this, it was an amazing contest.”

P. V. Sindhu and Saina are in the same stable now and can train together. That is good news for Indian badminton.   -  SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

 

Saina, who has won 20 international titles, refused to agree that the focus in women’s singles from India will be only on her and Sindhu in the days to come given the lack of performances by others at the highest level.

“I don’t think so. There are a couple of good players who are ready to step up, but it requires a lot of effort and hard work. These young talent have to dream big and chase those dreams with the kind of effort needed to be champion material,” Saina felt.

“Well, I am sure if I and Sindhu had played in the World championship final (it was on the cards) it would have been history and an opportunity of a lifetime. But I must say Sindhu is in a different zone after all the hard work she has put in. She is a very good player and among the top players in the world,” were Saina’s compliments to her fellow Hyderabadi.

Why were there not too many media interactions from her end in the last one year? “You know I am not the kind of person who would speak against anyone just for the heck of it. When there is nothing to speak, it is better to be silent and focus on your own job,” is Saina’s view. “Everyone knows, the early loss in the Rio Olympics was a big setback for me. And, only I know what kind of a struggle I underwent after that. My career was itself in doubt after the surgery. During that phase when I was lying on the bed with my knee strapped, there were thoughts whether I was finished as a player, leave alone win medals at this level,” looks back Saina.

“When something has to come, if you put in the kind of efforts it will. That is my philosophy,” says Saina even as there is talk about the possiblility of all the big guns of Indian badminton — players and coaches — working together.

“Well, there is nothing that I cannot speak to Gopi Sir having trained under him and having had such a wonderful run before winning the Olympics medal and also so many titles. Yes, we took selfies and remembered the old times, which are memorable when you look back,” says Saina on opening up with Gopi after a long gap.

“Yes, I believe this is the golden era of Indian badminton. But it is again everyone working like a complete team in their own way. We have to remember the contribution of the coaches and the support staff who always give their heart out without ever getting their due,” Saina felt.

“So, badminton in India is not just about Saina or Sindhu. It is also about players like Srikanth, Praneeth, Kashyap, Sameer and the coaches like Vimal Sir and Gopi Sir. Mulyo and Kim Tan Her are also there (doubles coach). Hence, you can always walk across to anyone and seek their help in chasing your medal hopes at any level now,” the gifted shuttler pointed out.

“We have to keep discussing. Not only with Vimal Sir, but with anyone who can help your cause as styles and strategies of players keep changing. It is more about mental aspects too now and women’s singles is more intensely fought and more open than ever before,” she said.

At the end of it all it is quite apparent that Saina wants to re-assert her supremacy in the days to come.