Hopefully, Saina Nehwal has not peaked too early
Shuttling queen Saina Nehwal has done it again. By annexing the premium Super Series title at the Australian Open she has reaffirmed her status as one of the finest practitioners of modern-day badminton.
That too, in a most incredible way, brushing aside two of her biggest nemesis in the singles event.
Saina's 11-21, 21-14, 21-19 win in yesterday's Sydney final over the World No 12, 22-year-old Chinese Sun Yu earned her a 6-1 lead in the head-to-head record against her younger opponent. The Indian's victories against the mercurial Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand, a former World No 1 (in the quarters) and over her biggest enemy on court, Wang Yihan of China (21-8, 21-12) in the semi-finals, will be long-remembered.
The match against Ratchanok was a true test of Saina's mental strength. She clutched on to seven game points, from 20-19 onwards, before clinching the first game 28-26 after a marathon 44-minute battle.
Every time she saw her one-point lead being equalled in the extended game, Saina came roaring back with gutsy smashes and sharp net dribbles which forced mid-court returns for a finish. In the second game, Saina was in no mood to relent, as she maintained slender leads right through.
"Ratchanok is very dangerous, because she can change her tactics at any given time. I have to be very careful when I play against her.
"She never gives up; she's mentally very strong," Saina told me during the 2014 Uber Cup matches in Delhi.
But at the Australian Open, Saina just bulldozed her way in the second game with better movements and court coverage.
The semi-final against China's Wang Yihan was even better. The 2011 world champion and 2012 London Olympics silver medallist came to the semis with a 11-4 head-to-head lead over the Hyderabadi. But Saina was a different player at the Australian Open.
She was hitting really hard, peppering the opposite court with sharply angled half smashes and always keeping up the attack. With sheer determination, Saina's continuous low serves followed by either sharp counters at the net or a smash down the side flank if the bird was lifted, kept the Chinese on tenterhooks most of the time. Saina seems to have no weakness in her game now and her court aggression is a welcome change.
It has been an incredible return to form for Saina. Suddenly, she looks strong for a medal at Rio. Hopefully, better than the bronze she got in London.
However, one hopes that she has not peaked too early and that her best is yet to come and is saved for Rio. The Olympics, which is a couple of months away, will be the final test for this amazing athlete.
A gold at the summer games will be the real icing on the cake, the added glory to a most illustrious career.
The writer is a former India player