Saina’s best yet to come

The victory in the Indonesia Open Super Series ranks on top of Saina Nehwal’s performances in 2009. By K. Keerthivasan.

On Sundays, Saina Nehwal spends time with her parents and friends, eats ice-creams, watches movies and goes around Hyderabad. She enjoys every moment of her free time. But given a choice, Saina would love to practise even during holidays.

The 19-year-old badminton star loves playing day in and day out, she loves to compete with the best in the world. Thanks to her relentless drive and immense self-belief, Saina is one of the most feared players in the world. Even the revered Chinese players have started taking note of her.

The year 2009, according to Saina, has been “unbelievable”. Of the 16 tournaments that she played in the season, Saina won one, the Super Series event in Indonesia, entered the semifinals in another and reached the quarterfinals in eight. It has been a truly remarkable achievement considering the quality and the intensity of those tournaments.

In her first tournament of the season — the Malaysian Super Series — Saina declared her intentions well and clear by reaching the quarterfinals where she lost to the higher-ranked Pi Hongyan of France after winning the first game.

In the Indonesian Open Super Series in June, Saina, seeded No. 6, defeated an erratic Petya Nedelcheva of Bulgaria and then overcame the doughty Juliane Schenk of Germany to enter the quarterfinals where she put it across Hwang Hye Youn of South Korea. She next outclassed Lu Lan (China) before defeating the third-seeded Lin Wang (China) in the final to become the first Indian woman to win the Indonesian Open Super Series title.

Matching Wang in drop shots and smashes, Saina overwhelmed the Chinese in three games. There wasn’t a trick that Saina didn’t employ against Wang, a strong defensive player. She won half-a-dozen points at the net and another dozen through aggressive play. She also won many points with her patented smashes.

Most importantly, what was heartening about Saina was her mobility. She covered the court well and retrieved shots which, a couple of years ago, she would not even have attempted. With the victory in the Indonesian Open, Saina proved that she belonged to the top league in women’s badminton.

“Against the Chinese, it’s stamina, stamina and more stamina. If we can attain that level of stamina, nobody can touch us,” Saina said. “The Super Series victory proved that I can win higher grade tournaments. And I can win the mental battle against the Chinese and that I am better than most of them.”

A first round exit in the All England Open and a quarterfinal loss to Lin Wang in the World Championship in Hyderabad did disappoint Saina’s fans. Added to it was the noticeable dip in her form in the later part of the year which was a cause for concern. Saina lost in the first round to Jiang Yanjiao (China) in the Japan Super Series and bowed out early in the Hong Kong Super Series, losing to Yao Jie (the Netherlands). In the China Super Series, Saina lost to Xia Jingyun, a qualifier from China.

However, Saina, true to her nature, bounced back with a fine performance in the World Super Series Masters held in the first week of December. In the tournament for the top eight players (placed in two groups), Saina finished second in her group and in the final knockout stage, she lost to Juliane Schenk in the semifinals. “Reaching the semifinals of a popular tournament was satisfying,” said Saina.

Going by her results and rankings, Saina is the best women’s player that India has produced. When the rankings were first introduced, Ami Ghia reached world No. 7. But she rarely faced any Chinese players, unlike Saina, who runs into quite a few of them in almost every tournament. Madhumitha Bisht and Aparna Popat weren’t consistent enough.

Currently ranked No. 8 in the world, Saina appears set to scale greater heights. She is young, has a razor-sharp mind and a body willing to take loads and loads of work. And in coach P. Gopichand, Saina has someone capable of extracting the best out of her.

Saina’s best is yet to come.

In mixed doubles, an Indian pair is making waves. Jwala Gutta and V. Diju have forged a great combination and are ranked No. 7 in the world. Recently, the duo made the country proud by reaching the final of the prestigious World Super Series Masters.