Ladies holding court

Ladies holding court

Spotlight: Contrasting personalities, Saina Nehwal and P V Sindhu have raised Indian badminton to a rare high

Ladies holding court
For the generation that couldn’t witness the proficiency of Prakash Padukone or P Gopichand, Saina Nehwal emerged the superstar Indian badminton had been praying for. For nearly a decade, she fought the odds and compelling dominance of the Chinese almost single-handedly. But unlike her Indian seniors, Saina did not battle lonely for long.

PV Sindhu, five years younger, took brisk strides. India, who once pined for one world-beater in this decade, today revels in the glory of two champion shuttlers.

The recently concluded India Open pitched the two on the opposite ends of the net. The crowd behind them was going wild in anticipation. Saina, 27, was on a comeback trail. A knee injury that needed surgery had pegged her back. The injury became apparent during the Rio Olympics, which incidentally, became the turning point of her career for Sindhu. Could fate have been quirkier?

Saina found the 21-year-old on the other side of the court brimming with confidence. She was jumping and raring to have a go at India’s most successful badminton player. Saina, on the other hand, was subdued. She was battling doubts, but her determination was still intact. The 47-minute contest turned out to be exacting, intense, and somewhat personal. Each point was played with exceptional gravity. The audience lapped every bit of it. Rarely on Indian soil had two home players fought with such vigour, and rarely had a contest attracted such heightened interest. The crowd swung from Saina to Sindhu and back.  Keeping up with the future, Sindhu won in straight games. It was her first victory over Saina in an international tournament. Saina, though, had not bowed out without a fight. She had kept up till the last. Her performance, despite defeat, held promise.

From now the battles for Saina are only going to mount. U Vimal Kumar, her coach, said Saina was on the right track.

“She is not over. She is on the right track. She just need not get impatient. The victories will come. But what is important for her now, more than anything else, is to play more matches. Once the fear of injuring herself is out, she can focus better on her game. She has to learn to take such defeats in her stride. What is good is that she didn’t let the contest become one-sided. All her recent defeats have come in close matches. So that is the next step for her,” said Vimal.

At 27, Saina still has a few years of badminton left in her. The fact she started as a teenager makes us feel that she has been around for the longest. Former Asian champion Dinesh Khanna concurred with Vimal before pointing that Sindhu, enjoying her prime, is the future of Indian badminton. “For nearly ten years Saina had been the flagbearer of Indian badminton. What she has achieved is unprecedented. She is a fighter and I believe she is going to be back. But now she will also have Sindhu. Sindhu is at her peak. She has strong legs, there is power in her smashes and her defence has vastly improved. She is almost a complete player now,” Khanna said.

If Saina has blazed paths untrodden, Sindhu is taking the legacy of Indian badminton forward. Sindhu was 16 when Saina won the Olympic bronze in London. She was her junior at the Gopichand Academy and Saina’s occasional sparring partner. The domestic circuit then was abuzz with the achievements of Saina. Even during her teenage years, Saina, then flaunting a clumsy bob-cut, had become a force with her determined mien. Based in Hyderabad but with Haryanvi roots, she was known to revel in challenges.

“What Saina did with her achievements was to instil the belief across events that it was possible to win and to beat the Chinese. Be it the men’s singles or women’s doubles, we had begun to get the medals. Not to forget the team events. Hers was a slow and steady rise and probably she has been the most consistent performer on the world circuit today. Before this surgery, she never had any major injury,” said nine-time national women’s champion Aparna Popat.

“What Sindhu has done is phenomenal in her short career. When she won the World Championships for the first time, many called it a fluke. But she repeated it in 2014, and now has an Olympic medal. There was a time when Saina was alone fighting against the Chinese domination. She used to sometimes feel overwhelmed by the burden. But now Sindhu has come along. She is still very young, but it is wonderful to have two champions from India in world badminton.”

The rivalry between the two has picked pace ever since Sindhu won the World Championships medal. Till then, even Saina hadn’t laid her palms on a World Championship medal. When Saina moved to the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy to train under Vimal Kumar in Bangalore, her clashes with Sindhu drew more attention. Saina had raised the bar to a whole new level in 2015 when she reached the final of the All England Open and World Championships and became the World No 1 — the first Indian to accomplish the feat. More was expected from her at the 2016 Rio Games, before the knee injury crashed her hopes. Their rivalry, though, many feel, augurs well for the sport.

“See rivalries between the two are inevitable. If Saina has lost to Sindhu today, she would beat her tomorrow and vice-versa. Important thing is to take these losses in their stride. These two have set a great example for the young shuttlers. Both are very strong — Saina coming from Jat background in North India, and Sindhu having the athletic genes from her parents. It is very important to be strong in world badminton today,” said Vimal.

“We never had such kind of rivalry in Indian sport between two top international players. It is a bit like Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka from Switzerland or Williams sisters from the US. Closest in India, it was between Prakash Nath and Devinder Mohan, who dominated the national circuit before reaching the quarterfinals of the All England. Since they faced each other, they tossed a coin to settle the winner. Nath won the toss, the semifinal match, but lost the final (against Sweden’s Conny Jepsen in 1947).”

Popat believes the differences in Saina’s and Sindhu’s personalities makes it interesting. “Saina has always been quite intense, even before a match. Sindhu is more eased out. But both are equally hard-working and focused. I remember Gopi once told me that it is tough to hear a ‘no’ from Sindhu. So it is good for youngsters to know they don’t have to be in a certain way to become a champion. Variety — be it in style or nature — is always good,” she said.

“Still it is early to compare both. When Saina turned pro, Chinese were overwhelmingly dominant. Today, the variety is a challenge. You have Carolina Marin from Spain, Tai Tzu-ying (Chinese Taipai), Ratchanok Intanon (Thailand) and Akane Yamaguchi (Japan). The challenge today is different from say five-six years ago. So, if one compares statistically then may be Sindhu has nearly matched Saina. But the kind of experience Saina has of dealing with varied situations, and of course the maturity, it will only come with time for Sindhu. For Saina, the challenge today will be to play against younger and taller players. The game is only becoming faster. I also feel that Sindhu can further improve her game by working on small things like adding more deception in her game or adding a new stroke in six months. I am sure Gopi would look into it.”

The fans also have offered their wholehearted support to the two — be it at Premier Badminton League or India Open. “Despite the fact that Sindhu had just won an Olympic silver, people had not forgotten Saina. There was a lot of support for her. There was no hostility. And this was great to watch. Even if they might not play each other very often in international tournaments or their rivalry may not last more than a year or two, whenever they meet it will generate a lot of interest,” Khanna said.

Regardless of victories or defeats, as long as Saina and Sindhu are on the frontline, Indian badminton will shine.