Why Saina Nehwal's world championship bronze at 27 means so much Indian badminton

Saina's biggest strength has always been her mind, and her 'I will win' mantra.

 |  5-minute read |   27-08-2017
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All of India was waiting to tell Nozomi Okuhara from the land of Sony – “It's a Saina”. In fact, Saina Nehwal's initial momentum did make it seem like Okuhara would end up on the losing side. Saina ran away with the first game at 21-12 in a rather spirited manner in the semi-final of the World championship in Glasgow. But Okuhara, who won the bronze at the Rio Olympics last August, saw through Saina's game plan and wore her out in the second and third games. 

Saina settled for the bronze, her second medal at the World championship after her silver two years ago. A credible performance despite her inability to set up a title clash with fellow Indian PV Sindhu, if you map her performance in Glasgow against Rio. 

Though India's focus will be on PV Sindhu given that she would play the final on Sunday, Saina's bronze is a reminder that the original rock star of Indian women badminton is not done and dusted yet. There is still enough fuel in her tank to light up the court. 

An year is a long time in sports and Saina knows that. Last August, her knee injury ended in an early exit from the Rio Olympics forcing her to go under the knife. The last one year has seen Saina on the sidelines with the spotlight on Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth, Sai Praneeth and HS Prannoy. At 27, many wonder if her best is behind her. Making a comeback to top-notch badminton, where fitness is almost everything, is never easy. 

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But Saina's biggest strength has always been her mind. And her mantra right from the time she picked up a racquet at the age of nine has been, “I will win”. Never one to take a shortcut, Saina spent hours at the gym, challenging herself. Which is why, the Return of the Nehwal to a final four finish at the World championship is Saina's personal triumph. It is a testimony to her never-say-die attitude. The best part is that despite not being at 100 per cent peak fitness, her body language shows the hunger to win. 

The strategy before the semis was to take advantage of the fact that Okuhara would be tired after her long quarter-final against Carolina Marin that lasted 93 minutes. The plan was to play an aggressive game, not allowing Okuhara to settle down. It worked superbly in the first game before Okuhara realised she was being outplayed. 

The second game saw Okuhara returning the compliment, drawing Saina into long rallies. The age gap and the fitness levels that come with it came into play and by the time, the third game happened, the 22-year-old's younger legs were clearly holding the advantage. 

Does this mean that Saina can go only this far and no further and that as one of the older women on the circuit – she is the oldest in the top 20 in the world – she would always be at a disadvantage while playing someone younger and with skillsets as good as hers. 

Yes and No. Yes, because with age, Saina's movement on court would obviously be a second or two slower than most of her opponents and their strategy would be to tire her out by making her play more, like Okuhara did on Saturday. Saina's knees, ankles, shoulder and arms are obviously not what they were five years ago. Besides, she still is not back to her pre-surgery fitness.

No, because if you think of your body like a machine, you can re-configure it to make it work according to your requirements. If a particular nut or bolt has been overused, realign the machine to put less stress on the worn out part. 

Saina has to work out ways to compensate for age taking its toll, be inspired by someone like Lin Dan, who at 33 has reached his seventh world championship final. For someone whose idol is tennis legend Roger Federer, Saina has to take a leaf out of his book and introduce the surprise element into her game. Her cross court smashes with the exquisite angles are still top notch but if Saina has to do better than a bronze, she will need to hunt for the X-factor. 

Having been on the circuit for so long, most of her rivals have figured out her “maar doongi” smash-the-rival-out game by now. What Saina needs to do is to introduce an unorthodox element into her game. She needs to go back to the drawing board with coach Vimal Kumar or perhaps even with a new set of coaching assistants who can work on a different wrist bend and arm angle to introduce a new flourish to her net play and smashes.

In the past few years, the half smash has become an integral part of every player's armoury but to retrieve them also put a lot of pressure on the lower part of the body and the shoulder socket. Saina's training manual has to combine her body dynamics with a tinkering in courtplay.  

The Hyderabadi who now trains in Bengaluru, away from her home in Hyderabad, does not lead an easy life. The life of a sportsperson in any case, most of the time is a lonely existence. Add to that, injury woes in the last year, the regret that playing in Rio only aggravated her injury and a diminished presence on the media radar. All of them deprive any player of the oxygen that lifts the spirits. But what Saina has shown on the big Glasgow stage is that it would be foolhardy to write off the player who is synonymous with grit and tenacity.

Also read: World Cup final: In Indian women's cricket team's success is a message for Kohli and boys

Writer

TS Sudhir TS Sudhir @iamtssudhir

The writer is a journalist.

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