Saina: smash hit of the season

Lady with the birdie

Saina: smash hit of the season

 Saina Nehwal has every reason to smile

She is  the World’s No. 6 and India’s current badminton queen and she earned the sobriquet the hard way. And now, with her self-confidence on a high, after bagging the Indonesian Open Super Series title at the Istora Senayan Stadium in Jakarta recently, there’s no stopping the young girl. Saina Nehwal is dreaming big; she’s dreaming of being “number one in the world”. And why not! There can be no looking back now.

On a rainy July evening, a little-known group called Badminton 45, which is dedicated to the promotion of the sport, got Rajashree Birla to present the Hyderabad-based 19-year-old a cheque of Rs 2.5 lakh at a crowded function hosted by the Bombay Gymkhana, a club formed in 1875 exclusively for Europeans, and remaining that way well into the 20th century — even Ranji was refused admission.

Felicitation and prizes for all-time badminton greats as well as rising stars are part of Badminton 45’s agenda. The members include ex-internationals Aparna Popat, Ami Shah, Leroy DSa, Pradeep Gandhe, the great Nandu Natekar, Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand, India’s current coach of whom Saina says: “He is the best training partner I can get.”

Badminton 45 was formed when a few badminton players who quit competitive play wished to continue their association with their favourite sport. During the Sub Junior Nationals in Mumbai some years ago, Badminton 45 was impressed by a young girl who had advanced to four finals and won all four. It chose to honour the girl and named her the ‘Outstanding Player of the Year’. The girl was Saina Nehwal.

After winning the Philippines Open Grand Prix title in 2006 to announce her arrival on the world stage, Saina followed that  victory by snatching the 2008 World Junior Championships in Pune.

On a roll

All in all, it’s been a dramatic journey of breathtaking feats: being adjudged the world’s most promising junior by the international body and becoming the first Indian to win a Super Series title on June 21, 2009 by shocking China’s brightest new star, world No. 3 Wang Lin 12-21, 21-18, 21-9. The victory, which was sweet revenge after losing to Lin in the Singapore Open just a few days earlier, marked the finest moment for Indian badminton since Gopichand won the All England title in 2001.

Saina now acknowledges that “the anxiety to win led to mistakes” and her defeat in the Beijing Olympics singles.

Saina’s maiden Super Series triumph in the Indonesian Open was a defining moment in many ways. She stunned two top Chinese players — former world No. 2 and seventh seed Lu Lan and 2007 junior world champion Wang Lin in the semi-finals and final, respectively while breaking her jinx against the girls from the Orient. The win now pits her as the one big threat to Chinese monopoly, a status enjoyed by Prakash Padukone throughout his career.

After her return from the Malaysian Open Grand Prix Gold where she lost to Chinese qualifier Xin Wang in the quarter-finals, Saina said she wished to be “among the top five by the end of this year.”

Her immediate target is the World Championship in Hyderabad in August, followed by tournaments in Chinese Taipei and Macau. And then of course, her dream to be world No. 1. “That will be difficult, but not impossible,” says Saina.

World No. 1 Zhou Mi (a former Chinese international now playing for Hong Kong), world No. 2 Tine Rasmussen of Denmark, world No. 6 Hongyan Pi (a Chinese-born French player) and Wong Mew Choo of Malaysia are the only players who have breached the ‘Great Wall of China’.

Rasmussen is in her late 20s, while Zhou Mi, Wang Chen of Hong Kong and Hongyan are on the wrong side of 30 and Choo has had recurring knee problems. In sum, then, Saina could be the lead player in taking on China, in  the next decade.

Coach’s take

Pullela Gopichand says the Indonesian Open triumph will help Saina believe that she can now win big tournaments. “It will help her perform better in the World Championship. No matter what she achieves after this, she’ll be viewed differently — as a genuine top player from now on. Her mental toughness comes from a strong desire to win. She has it in her to be the best in the world. She should be more consistent and keep winning big tournaments. It is important now to have patience and give her time so that she can come up with some more stunning performances.”

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