Saina Nehwal now faces challenges of different kinds at the international level. With more players from different countries improving and Sindhu getting close, Saina has no dearth of motivation. This year, with much at stake, is just right for Saina to come good with renewed vigour, writes Rakesh Rao.

Since October 2012, Saina Nehwal has struggled with form, fitness and focus. An ankle-injury had a lot to do with her indifferent showing. With every premature exit from the elite tournaments, Saina’s stock fell. She looked increasingly beatable. And a number of lesser-known players proved stronger and dented Saina’s confidence.

Against this background, Saina’s triumph in the India Grand Prix Gold tournament in Lucknow assumes significance. In the final, she expectedly justified her top seeding by beating compatriot P. V. Sindhu, seeded two, in straight games.

Following the victory, Saina’s world ranking climbed two rungs to seven. Sindhu moved up a spot and regained her career-best 10th spot. The title-triumph also ended a 15-month success-drought for Saina.

Given the field that truly lacked quality to seriously test a player of Saina’s calibre, her victory was a foregone conclusion. The annual event, rescheduled from December to January, failed to attract a single player among the top-eight ranked players. The timing of the event, soon after the BWF Superseries events like Korea Open and Malaysia Open, meant the top players chose to skip the year’s first Grand Prix Gold tournament.

In fact, in the past two years, Saina, too, was among those who chose to skip the Lucknow event. Since the event was scheduled between the year-ending BWF Superseries Finals and the lucrative season-opener Korea Open, a “tired” Saina managed get her way.

In 2011, Saina landed in the city, attended the opening ceremony, collected the cheque presented by the organiser as part of her felicitation and headed back to Hyderabad.

In 2012, Saina was in the city to sign a deal with Sahara. The following day she took the court against Russia’s Ksenia Polikarpova and smilingly “retired” from the match when leading 21-17, 20-18. This obviously did not go down well with the organisers.

This time, however, much had changed. With no success from the Superseries events since claiming the Denmark Open in October 2012, Saina found it fit to enter a Grand Prix Gold event. Indeed, it turned out to be a good stage for Saina to regain her confidence.

After claiming the title she last won in 2009, Saina was obviously excited. Declarations like “I am playing at my best” and “I am focussed on the future” sounded natural but were far from convincing.

The way Saina struggled to survive against the lone Chinese challenger Xuan Deng in the semifinals proved that she was nowhere close to her best.

Saina’s on-court movements left a lot to be desired. Her body-language reflected her diminishing confidence. Against players of lesser quality, Saina did show her authority. But at the first indication of a serious challenge, like the match against Xuan Deng, Saina seemed to crack.

The way Saina trailed 0-7 in the deciding game against the Chinese, ranked 49th, showed her vulnerability. It was indeed a credit to her grit that she bounced back to snatch a face-saving 21-14, 17-21, 21-19 victory.

After this victory, Saina did talk of her joy of winning a three-game battle. “I have lost many close matches in the past year so I am every happy to win this one.”

The joy was obvious. Indeed, Saina has lost more three-game battles in the past 15 months than in any season of her career.

Beginning from her straight-game defeat to Japanese Minatsu Mitani in the final of the French Open in October 2012, Saina had lost 22 matches — 14 in three games — to 18 rivals. Except for her two defeats to Li Xuerui, the rest had come against lower-ranked players.

Saina had lost to six players from China, two each from Japan, Thailand, Korea, besides rivals from Indonesia, Singapore, Germany, Denmark and Chinese Taipei. This phase proved the worst for Saina after her defeats to 11 different opponents during 2011.

“As you can see, it is no longer Saina versus China. Players from other countries are coming up fast and we have to prepare for them as well,” says chief coach P. Gopi Chand. “I am really not worried about this phase. We are working on all areas and soon you’ll find Saina coming back strongly,” assures Gopi, known for his no-nonsense approach to training.

The year ahead has 10 other BWF Superseries events apart from Thomas/Uber Cup, Commonwealth Games, World championship and Asian Games.

Saina, 23, still has a number of years in top-flight badminton. Gopi says he does not believe that Indian sportspersons mature late. “When I won the All England, I was 27 and did not have many years left to play consistently at that level. But with my trainees, I have ensured that they peak early because I believe even Indians can look at careers of 8-10 years at the top. Injuries are part of the sport but if we can keep our players in peak physical shape, our players can stay among the best for a longer time,” says Gopi, oozing authority and confidence in good measure.

Though Gopi does not allow Saina and Sindhu to train together — both report and practise at different times in the camp at Hyderabad — the gap between the two ladies is slowly but surely narrowing.

Saina can clearly feel the threat from Sindhu. The 18-year old Sindhu, at present, lacks the consistent pace and power to match her senior rival. But in another year, Sindhu should be able make things tougher for Saina.

After all, Saina has remained unchallenged in the country since 2005 stunning the then National champion Aparna Popat in the Asian Satellite tournament and reinforcing her prowess by claiming the 2006 Philippines Open title.

Now, Saina faces challenges of different kinds. With more players from different countries improving and Sindhu getting close, Saina has no dearth of motivation. This year, with much at stake, is just right for Saina to come good with renewed vigour.