Super Sunday!

SANDEEP SAXENA

It was a repeat of what the world saw at the China Open in November last year where Saina Nehwal and K. Srikanth won the singles titles. The triumphs in New Delhi marked the ninth BWF Superseries title for Saina and the second for Srikanth, writes Rakesh Rao.

For a nation bereft of true world-beaters in sports, Saina Nehwal’s ascent to the top of the world rankings comes at a time when this cricket-crazy country is coming to terms with its team’s defeat in the World Cup semifinals.

As though to celebrate the crossing of the milestone, Saina claimed her maiden India Open title without losing a game in five matches. Her display in the final against former World champion Ratchanok Intanon was in keeping with her newfound status.

Though officially Saina’s coronation as the World No. 1 was due on April 3, her fans in the Capital made no secret of what they thought of the achievement. They thronged the Siri Fort Indoor Complex in anticipation of her triumph in an event where she had not crossed the quarterfinals in four attempts since 2011.

It didn’t matter that the leading Chinese players in the women’s section stayed away from the event to prepare for the Malaysia Open.

Even as the din prevailed, World No. 4 K. Srikanth played his part in completing a fabulous Sunday for Indian badminton. He got the better of Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen in three games — as he did recently on way to the Swiss Open title.

This ‘Double Delight’ was a repeat of what the world saw at the China Open in November where Saina and Srikanth won the singles titles. The triumphs in New Delhi marked the ninth BWF Superseries title for Saina and the second for Srikanth.

For Saina, it was her third successive finals in as many events this year. She was looking to avenge the loss suffered in the All England final to World champion Carolina Marin in their projected title fight in New Delhi, but the match-up never happened. The Spaniard lost to Ratchanok in three close games in the semifinals.

Carolina’s defeat also meant that Saina’s passage to the World No. 1 spot was cleared since the Spaniard was the only who stood between the Indian and the top ranking.

Saina with her coach Vimal Kumar. The new training methods and the freedom that Vimal allows Saina have had a positive impact on her game.-PTI

With the Olympic champion, Li Xuerui, the outgoing World No. 1, battling fitness issues and choosing not to defend the points earned in reaching the last India Open final, Saina had only to ease through a very friendly draw to end the Chinese girl’s 119-week reign at the top.

Saina was understandably jubilant after sealing the top spot on the eve of the final. “It’s something which is still unbelievable, that I am the World No. 1. When I will see myself there in the rankings chart, I can believe it. It’s a big achievement that every player dreams of. We saw Li Xuerui there for long and now there will a change in the name. I think it’s all because of the performances I am showing,” she said.

Saina broke into the World top-10 in December 2008 and precisely two years later, she zoomed to the second spot. However, thereafter, it took her over four years to gain the top rank.

Saina had revealed in August 2014 that following her eighth defeat to Li Xuerui, in the World Championship quarterfinals, she wanted to give up badminton in frustration. “I was tired of losing to the same player again and again. But Vimal (Kumar) Sir told me that there was nothing wrong with my game. I remember, even during the Uber Cup (in May 2014), he pointed out areas in my game that needed improvement,” she recalled.

Once Saina decided to part ways — for the second time since 2011 — with her coach P. Gopi Chand, there has been a noticeable improvement in her performances. The new training methods and the freedom that Vimal allows her have had a positive impact on Saina’s game. Her World ranking has moved from No. 7 to No. 1!

So what did Vimal observe?

“Saina was playing a game that became very predictable for the world’s other leading players. Her strength has always been her mind. She is a good fighter. She would retrieve anything, but those things were not always consistent,” noted Vimal.

And what suggestions did he make?

“I suggested that she bring in some more variations from the back of the court. Then she could bring in those faster, deceptive clearances from the sides, a straight flick down the line and cross-drops. So, I suggested that she mix it up well — the net tumble with the cross-drops,” revealed Vimal.

Slowly, things started to fall in place for Saina. Her triumph in the China Open last November brought back the confidence she was fast losing midway through the season. And this year has been very fruitful.

The journey ahead, however, is going to be tough once the players begin to focus on ensuring their berths for next year’s Olympic Games. Moreover, the Chinese girls can be expected to come hard at Saina to get back the World No. 1 spot. And the challenges from some of the non-Chinese players cannot be taken lightly too.

The coming weeks will be very crucial for Saina, as she aims to make her presence felt in the World Championship in Jakarta in August.