'Saina tougher than Chinese'
Expertspeak: Olympian Vimal Kumar analyses India’s medal prospects in badminton
Five Indian shuttlers carry a nation’s hopes of a podium finish at the London Olympics.
In Barcelona 1992, when the sport made its maiden appearance, it was U Vimal Kumar who shouldered the expectations. Having competed at the highest level, Vimal, who was also the national coach in Athens 2004, knows what it takes to capture a medal at the quadrennial bash. In this chat with Deccan Herald, the former national champion analyses the chances of Saina Nehwal and her team-mates at the mega event.
In your opinion, who has a realistic chance of a podium finish among the five shuttlers?
Best chance of course is for Saina. Considering the consistency in her performance at the top level, Saina should win a medal in London. She has performed well in the last four years. She can beat anybody in world badminton now. She is definitely a medal contender. But whether it will be gold, silver or bronze will depend upon her form on that particular day.
Physically she is fit. Mentally she is tougher than any other player, even better than the Chinese players. Saina can lose only if she is sluggish or if she fails in her tactics on that particular day. Otherwise, she can win a medal.
Badminton is more open after the introduction of the new scoring system from 2006. A shuttler ranked 100 in the World can beat a top-10 player. So there is nobody unbeatable. Very few players are consistent in their performances. So our mixed doubles pair of Jwala Gutta and V Diju would fancy their chances. But a lot depends on the draw.
If the duo runs into top pairs early in the Games then it will be tough for them. The Jwala-Diju is one the most feared mixed doubles opponents in badminton. They are dangerous floaters. They were ranked inside the top-10 before, so the duo is very much in the reckoning for a medal. They can beat the top Chinese, Koreans and Danes on their day but they have not done anything special like Saina in the run up to the Games.
The women’s doubles pair of Ashwini-Jwala weren’t consistent after their World championship bronze. They have the potential but the draw would be crucial for them also. A lot would depend on the draw for Parupalli Kashyap, who has to play extremely well to reach the semifinals. If Kashyap runs into (Lin) Dan of China or Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia in the group stage he would be in trouble. Since none of the Indian players other than Saina will be seeded, I feel their chances will depend on the draw on July 23.
Who will be Saina’s main threat in her quest for Olympic glory?
Rankings in Olympics are based on the World rankings as on May 3, so the top four are Chinese players. The BWF rule is that if a country has four players in top-four, they can field three of them. From three Wangs — Yihan, Xin, Shixian — and Li Xuerui, Chinese dropped Shixian, who is the weak link among them, and replaced her with Li, who has been in top form this year.
Shixian always struggled against Saina (Saina’s win-loss record is 3-1 against Shixian), so the Chinese took Li on to the team considering her good record against Saina (Saina 2-4 Li). Saina is yet to beat Yihan (Saina 0-5 Yihan) and her record against Xin (Saina 2-4 Xin) is also not good.
Li is dangerous because her shots are a little bit tricky. She also has very deceptive flicks from the net to which Saina is vulnerable. In Indonesia, Li had a match point but Saina came back to beat the Chinese in the final. China have 7-8 players for Saina to concentrate but the Chinese have only one Saina. So it is really tough and Saina had done a good job so far in tackling them. It is important for Saina to find variation in her shots. I think, Denmark’s Tine Baun and Germany’s Juliane Schenk could be the dark horses in the Olympics.
What strategy should Saina adopt?
One cannot go with a studied strategy. When you play against a player of similar calibre, you should have a Plan B. Saina will have to keep varying her game. Saina has to play to her strength. If she is fully fit and moving well, she can get to the net early and play tight net shots which is her strong area that can upset many. In the process, Saina also has the ability to outsmart her opponents with long rallies.
What is your comment on the new Olympics format?
A league-cum-knock out draw means, players will get chance to warm-up for the bigger challenges in the knockout stage. A good draw will put the Indian shuttlers in good stead.