SPOTLIGHT ON SAINA

RAKESH RAO

Saina Nehwal... relying on speed and power.-RAJEEV BHATT

INITIALLY, the lack of depth in the field for the Asian Satellite badminton championship was the only talking point at New Delhi's Siri Fort Indoor Stadium. But once the action commenced, the intensity of competition in singles dominated every conversation. It was being seen as a chance for the country's second-string men's players to gain some exposure. Finally, the emergence of a new star heightened the `recall-quotient' of this seven-nation event.

Saina Nehwal, the 15-year-old Hyderabad girl, provided the biggest reason to remember the championship that survived being a non-starter. She stunned eight-time reigning National champion Aparna Popat in straight games for her first women's title in four international competitions. The significance of this result can be gauged from the fact that Aparna's last defeat to a fellow Indian came in the 2001 National inter-state championship at Jaipur where G. Jwala pulled off an unexpected result.

However, as a result of Saina's epoch-making victory, Thomas Kurien's first major men's title was pushed to the background. Kurian, seeded four, proved superior to teenager Anand Pawar in three games of the title-match. With Chetan Anand, Anup Sridhar and Arvind Bhatt away playing the Denmark Open and top seed Abhinn Shyam Gupta going down in the quarterfinals, Kurian remained India's best bet to win. He lived up to the expectations, before Saina took the centre stage.

For sometime now, Saina is being seen as the one to take over the mantle from the long-serving Aparna. But very few had expected the National girls' (under-19 and under-16) champion to scalp Aparna this season. After all, Aparna had beaten Saina in the semifinal and the final of the last two National championships. But in their latest clash, Aparna committed too many errors and let Saina play at her usual fast pace.

After the victory, a jubilant Saina said it was hard for her to believe that she had just beaten the lady she admired so much. "She is a great player and the confidence which I have gained from beating her should help me play more consistently at this level. Today, I played the way I love to play but Aparna made many mistakes," said the soft-spoken Saina who relies more on speed and power on the court.

A prot�g� of now-retired coach Mohammad Arif and a trainee at Gopi Chand's Academy, Saina surely has the right people to guide her. Besides coaching tips, Saina can also gain from the striking humility of her two mentors.

Arif feels Saina has all the strokes but needs to work on her speed and movement in order to match tougher opposition. "She is a fine prospect with a lot of potential," said Arif, under whose supervision Saina blossomed before moving to Gopi Chand's Academy. "I am sure she is going to serve the nation for many years," he said.

Thomas Kurien... living up to expectations.-RAJEEV BHATT

Gopi who, like Arif, watched the match on television, said, "I think Saina made Aparna move a lot more today than the other girls had managed in the past. Aparna was good at the net but lacked the speed today to match Saina."

Knowing Aparna's grit, one can be sure that the champion will come hard at Saina when they play next. After all, the defeat has hurt Aparna's pride. But this healthy rivalry should benefit India when the two join hands for the Uber Cup qualifiers in Jaipur in February.

The two girls had made the final with varying degrees of difficulty. Though Aparna had to save five game points against a much younger Aditi Mutatkar in the quarterfinal, she was in control. She went on to tame B. R. Meenakshi in straight games in the semifinal.

Saina knocked out Malaysia's Wong Pei Xian in a close pre-quarterfinal (11-9, 7-11, 11-8) before getting her act together against Bibari Basumatari for a 3-11, 11-3, 11-4 triumph. Second seed Trupti Murgunde was Saina's next three-game victim before she went on to stop an erratic Aparna in two.

Among the men, Malaysia's fifth seed Lim Kenn looked the best in the field during his 15-3, 15-10 conquest of Abhinn in the quarterfinals. However, after dominating the defensive Abhinn in the first game and leading 11-1 in the second, Kenn twisted his ankle and needed medical attention. On resumption, he managed to stop Abhinn. But, thanks to the injury sustained in the previous round, Kenn was not the same when he took the court against Anand Pawar in the semifinal. His movements were understandably restricted and Pawar did not have to work too hard for victory. In his quarter, Pawar had scored an impressive 15-3, 15-7 victory over the seasoned Sachin Ratti for a place in the semifinal. Ratti, the only player to have beaten Gopi twice after his All England triumph, is trying a comeback of sorts but needs to work a lot on his fitness.

Aparna Popat... committing far too many errors..-RAJEEV BHATT

From the lower half, eighth seed Iranian Golam Reza Bagheri reached the semifinal after stopping National junior champion Sagar Chopda, who had upstaged second seed, Malaysian Law Yew Thien 15-4, 7-15, 15-6 in the second round. Kurien had easily made his way to the semifinal when talented youngster Ajay Jayaram conceded their quarterfinal after dropping the first game. In the final, Kurien proved superior to Bagheri by repeating the victory scored in the last Pakistan Satellite tournament.

The final had its share of excitement when Pawar rallied from being down 5-10 in the first game to win the next 10 points. That apart, Kurien never allowed Pawar to test him.

The quality of challenge offered by the players from Pakistan, Iran, Malaysia and Sri Lanka in the singles was not good enough to test the Indians. But in the doubles, the Iranian girls reached the final where they lost to the inexperienced Indonesians who stayed away from the singles. In the men's doubles and mixed doubles, Indian pairs were to the fore. All in all, the Asian Satellite badminton tourney gave the Indians much to shout about.

The results (Indians unless stated):

Men's singles (final): Thomas Kurien bt Anand Pawar 10-15, 15-5, 15-10; (semifinals) Pawar bt Lim Kenn (Mas) 15-12, 15-3; Kurien bt Golam Reza Bagheri (Iri) 15-5, 15-6.

Men's doubles (final): Sanave Thomas and Rupesh Kumar bt Jaseel P. Ismail and V. Diju 17-14, 15-7; Sanave and Rupesh bt Chung Chist Khoo and Raymond Steven (Mas) 15-8, 15-2; Ismail and Diju bt Markose Bristow and Jaison Xavier 15-5, 15-2.

Women's singles (final): Saina Nehwal bt Aparna Popat 11-8, 11-6; (semifinals): Aparna bt B. R. Meenakshi 11-6, 11-8; Saina bt Trupti Murgunde 3-11, 11-3, 11-6.

Women doubles (final): Krishinda Nitya and Metali Nadya (Ina) bt Manbin Perza and Nigin Amirpour (Iri) 15-1, 15-3; (semifinals): Manbin and Nigin bt Thilini Jayasinghe and Sulochan Ariyadasa (Sri) 15-6, 15-13; Nitya and Metali bt Norshahliza Baharum and Wong Pie Xian (Mas) 15-1, 15-2.

Mixed doubles (final): V. Diju and B. R. Meenakshi bt Markose Bristow and Aparna Balan 15-10, 15-4 (semifinals): Bristow and Aparna bt Candra and Melati Nintya (Ina) 15-7, 15-9; Diju and Meenakshi bt James Jayan and Deepti Priyadarshini 17-14, 15-10.