Saina on the fast lane

Saina Nehwal with her parents, Usha and Harivir Singh, after her return from South Korea. Saina's silver medal in Incheon won praise from all quarters.-MOHAMMED YOUSUF

Saina Nehwal had a great run in the Junior World badminton championship in Incheon, South Korea. S. R. Suryanarayan takes a look at her progress.

Saina Nehwal is emerging as the `Sania' of Indian badminton. Her popularity rating is rising and for good reason. After Aparna Popat — the current National champion, who had stunned the badminton world by storming into the final of the Junior World Championship 10 years ago — another Indian is making waves in world badminton.

Saina's exploits came in Incheon in South Korea. Seeded 14th, this Hyderabad-based girl, coached by P. Gopi Chand, slowly but steadily showed her resolve. She stepped past Malaysians, Chinese and Koreans to make the title-round, where she lost to the top-seed, Wang Yihan from China.

Coach and manager, Sanjiv Sachdeva, who has been to many international meets with junior teams, including the one where Aparna Popat had become the first Indian to reach the junior world championship final (Silkeborg, Denmark, 1996), described it as an exhilarating experience. "Saina played outstandingly day after day, and the stress and strain certainly affected her in the final. She looked exhausted," the coach said in his assessment.

Detailing Saina's progress at Incheon, he said, "from a first round bye, Saina began her march by beating Kurniawan of Indonesia 21-14, 18-21, 21-16. In the next round, she beat Sukumaran of Malaysia 21-8, 21-7 to reach the quarterfinal. She beat Jang Soo Young (seeded No. 5) of Korea 21-17, 21-16 to enter the last four. In the semifinal she defeated Bae Youn Joo, again of Korea, before losing to Wang of China in the final (21-13, 21-9)."

Considering her potential and the ability to maintain her focus against tough opponents, this 16-year-old has it in her to make it to the big league, feels Sachdeva, who is also going with the Indian team to the Doha Asian Games. "I think, if she gets a good draw, Saina can win a medal there," said the coach.

It has been a most productive year for the Indian sensation. A bronze medal in the Melbourne Commonwealth Games, a silver in the senior national, then a gold in the Philippines Open and now the runner-up spot in the Junior World Championship. For one who was 150th in the world rankings at the start of the year, it has been a phenomenal climb to 32 now.

If Saina's performance was exemplary then others in the team were not far behind. According to Sachdeva it was one of the best shows overall by the Indians abroad. In all six boys (Jishnu Sanyal, Srujan Nandaluri, Ratikanta Saha, Gurusai Dutt, Akshay Diwalkar and K. Arun) and four girls (Saina, Arundhathi Pantawane, Ashwini Ponnapa and Nithya Sosale) had taken part. The team championship preceded the Open events. Here India played Vietnam first, beat it 5-0, then earned a walk over from Macao. In the third match India beat Germany 3-2 (Germany was ranked eighth in the last championship) and topped the sub-group II. In the knock-out round, India played sub-group I topper, Korea and lost 3-0 and lost again, to Japan 3-1. In the final match for placings, India lost to Thailand 3-1 and finished eighth, which was not a bad finish comparing the last championship where India was placed 13th.

In the open events, Saina of course stole the thunder. A few other Indians, too, caused a ripple or two. Srujan Nandaluri, for instance, reached the pre-quarterfinal round in the boys' singles, beating the 10th seed Wong Shuki of Hong Kong enroute, before bowing out to top seed Tago Kenichi of Japan. The Japanese is the Asian champion. Jishnu Sanjal did not progress much in the singles, but partnering Akshay Diwalkar went on to reach the last eight in doubles.

Seeded eight, Jishnu and Akshay defeated Kosenko and Kumkova of Russia 21-19, 20-22, 21-9 in the second round, Eliz Marcus and Victor Liew of England 21-15, 21-12 in the next round before falling to the third-seeded pair of Lim Kim Wah and Mak Hoe Chun of Korea 21-16, 21-17.

Equally enthusiastic was the effort of Gurusai Dutt and K. Arun. Though they did not go beyond the second round, losing to Indonesia's top pair of Kurniawan and Subakti, they showed their fighting quality. The scores 20-22, 21-11, 21-12 vouch for that.