Given the regularity with which Saina Nehwal has been making early exits, one is tempted to ask: Are we staring at the beginning of the end of a dream run, that at one point of time catapulted her to the World No 2 spot, and an almost permanent place in the top five? She is ranked eighth now and the signs are not very encouraging.
Saina Nehwal looks on during her singles bronze medal match at the 2012 London OlympicS. Pic/Getty Images
The latest defeat to Japan's Eriko Hirose in the first round of the Singapore Open Super Series, showed that the Indian ace was outclassed. In the India Open Super Series too, Saina looked uncomfortable against Wang Yihan, making a tame quarter-final exit.
It is pertinent here to examine her career graph against some of her leading opponents to really gauge the extent of her loss of form.
The famous Chinese troika of Olympic champion Li Xuerui, All England champion Wang Shixian and World No 1 Wang Yihan, have all lost to Saina before. But recent results show Saina has been at the receiving end.
Head-to-head, she leads Wang Shixian 4-3, but the previous two meetings have gone in favour of the Chinese. Xuerei leads Saina 6-2, with the former triumphing on the previous two occasions. Ditto is the case with Yihan, who now leads 8-1, including wins in the last two matches.
Korean singles specialist Yeun Ju Bae is behind in the head-to-head count at 4-6, but has won their last two encounters in 2013. Current world champion Intanon Ratchanok of Thailand leads 4-3 and beat Saina in the two matches they played last year.
A couple of more players have led her on the head-to-head-count recently, but the real outcome of these defeats is that the fear of sparring against the Indian has evaporated in the last few months.
These indifferent results are certainly a cause of worry for Saina and her coach Pullela Gopichand. So, the question is what has gone wrong with her game, and what can be done to bring her back to top form. I feel there are three key points that need to be understood and addressed.
Firstly, Saina has lost a lot of weight. I am not very sure whether this helps. She is a player who normally likes to display power on court. She needs to build muscles and that should be seen on the court.
Her normal game used to revolve around physical power, but that somehow seems to be missing now. I feel she needs to put on a bit of weight as that will help.
Secondly, she must develop a stroke that must be unique to her. Her net play especially should be better. Saina has been smashing and hitting hard, but somehow her follow-through is not helping her move fast to the net where she ought to be dominating. Every top player has something different, some stroke which they get points or openings to finish.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, a bit of rest and change of training schedule and atmosphere will help. Saina looks a bit jaded. Though the Badminton Association of India and coaches led by Gopichand have done a great job with Saina, sometimes a change of scenery can help.
A stint in Malaysia, China or Denmark, under a more relaxed but different training regimen may help her and her team to see things differently. Prakash Padukone, Syed Modi and many others, including Gopichand, imbibed a lot from the change of ambience. In Saina's case too, this could prove beneficial.
But, can she recover the considerable ground she seems to have lost? Of course she can. She knows what it takes to be the best. And one has to remember that Saina is still only 24 years old and she has a great number of years of top class badminton left in her.