Nehwal needs to be at full fitness at the Premier Badminton League in January
Judged by the monumentally high standards that Saina Nehwal has set for herself, the Indian shuttler's performance in the recent BWF World Super Series Finals in Dubai must be classed as tepid, at best.
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For one who was until as recent as October 15 ranked No 1 in the world, a solitary win in three group matches, and failure to make the play-off semi-finals, cannot be considered a memorable outing. True, the sole victory came against reigning world champion Carolina Marin in a battling, bruising three-game encounter, in which Saina simply refused to lose. But then, the manner in which Queen Carolina herself capitulated twice in the space of three days to Japan's 20-year-old Nozomi Okuhara, and lost three of the four matches she played at the Hamdan Sports Complex, showed that the Spanish left-hander was at well below her best form.
As India's star shuttler prepares to parade her wares in the Premier Badminton League (PBL) at the start of the New Year, it is worth examining the reasons for her losses to Okuhara and Taiwan's Tai Tzu Ying in Dubai, and to speculate on her chances in the new-look league. Okuhara beat the Indian in two comfortable games, revealing that the pocket-sized Japanese, winner of the grand finals, is undoubtedly the most improved female player of 2015. Earlier reliant on her tremendous speed of foot and obdurate defence, Okuhara has recently developed strokes like the sharp slice to the forehand net corner and the equally sharp crosscourt overhead drop, bending her back almost double in the process. Both strokes caught Saina palpably flat-footed, time and again.
As for Tai, she has troubled the Indian ace repeatedly in recent times. Their head-to-head record stands at 6-5 in favour of the Taiwanese player, with their most recent four meetings all ending in Tai's favour. It is becoming increasingly apparent that Saina is finding it hard to read the compulsive strokemaker's deceptive angles. Saina, it is apparent, would be stretched to the limit to counter Tai's guiles, even if she were fully fit. At Dubai, the 25-year-old Indian was definitely not 100%, as she had been in the 2013 Indian Badminton League, when she had won all the seven matches she played in the uniform of the winning team, Hyderabad Hotshots.
A troublesome Achilles tendon had limited her training in the three weeks preceding the grand finals; and the relative lack of fitness showed in her movements towards the net, particularly in the closing reaches of her matches against Okuhara and Tai. She had herself admitted before her matches in Dubai that she had come to the event with zero expectations.
If the connoisseur of the game were to examine Saina's showing at international level over the past eight years, her achievements become even more praiseworthy than those of players like Wang Yihan and Li Xuerui of China, Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand and the two-time reigning champion Marin.
The major reason lies in the sphere of talent. While Yihan, Xuerui, Intanon, Marin and Tai are all ooze talent and are brilliant strokemakers, Saina is more of a 'made' player. She does have power in her smash, but there is little deception in her wrist. There is no one on the circuit who works harder than this Haryanvi girl settled in Hyderabad since her pre-teen days.
It is that single-minded devotion to the game and that admirable work ethic which have carried Saina to the heights she has reached – like several Super Series wins over the years, complemented by the historic Olympic bronze medal in 2012 and the runners-up spot at the 2015 All-England Championships.
But it has also meant that, while the other talented girls on the world circuit can get away with being less than fully fit for top matches, Saina needs perforce to be cent-per cent in the fitness department if she is to last through the gruelling five days of a major tournament. Her fitness cannot be allowed to slip even a little; and every little niggle will set her back more than her more talented contemporaries on the circuit.
Saina would also do well to watch her body language on court, especially when the rallies are not going her way. She tends to lose six to seven points in a reel through errors made as a result of eagerness to finish the rally via the short route. Then her shoulders visibly slump, her face turns sullen, and she virtually drags her feet around between rallies.
The Indian ace would do well to take a leaf out of Marin's book, and maintain her composure on court when the opponent hits a purple patch. The Spaniard may lose a match tamely, as happened in the second game of her semi-final against Okuhara in Dubai; but not even at match-point did one see that sprightliness and look of tigerish concentration slip from her demeanour.
No doubt Saina will have matters much her own way during the PBL, for the world's top half-dozen women are missing from the fray, as they husband their bodies before the 2016 Rio Olympics. The half-dozen matches that she will be required to play in the first fortnight of January should work well for her, getting her match-fit for sterner tests ahead, after that ankle injury which cost her a place in the sun at Dubai.