The night before Malvika Bansod was supposed to face Saina Nehwal in the second round of India Open, junior national coach Sanjay Mishra – who has seen the promising youngster’s rise in recent times first-hand – said, “woh jeete ya haare, experience bahut important hai Saina ke against khelna ka.

Win or lose, the Bansod’s match against Nehwal was going to be an important one in her career. Sure, it was against not a fully fit Nehwal, as the former world No 1 had already said she was even considering withdrawing from the event but played to get some match time as she works her back to full fitness. But for the 20-year-old, it was an opportunity of the sort that hasn’t been available a lot.

The pandemic, the frozen rankings, the paucity of lower rung tournaments to gain ranking points have all made it difficult for younger players to make their mark on the circuit. You can make a breakthrough only if you have the platform to showcase what you are capable of, and that hasn’t been easy to get. So irrespective of how it went, Bansod’s match against Nehwal was a big one for the youngster because it was at a Super 500 event and against a super player. There will be attention, and there are points at stake, but more importantly, nothing teaches big-match temperament like a match against one of the biggest names in the sport.

Indeed, Malvika Bansod went on to defeat Saina Nehwal in straight games and that was the headline-making event of day three’s on-court action in New Delhi. And she did while displaying the focus and maturity that has long been discussed in Indian badminton circles as the qualities that could see her make a name for herself, more than the obvious talent.

“It was my first meeting with Saina Nehwal. She has been my idol since I started playing badminton. So playing against her was a dream come true and that too, in the Indian Open, on such a big stage. A Super 500 tournament (a first in her career)... it was a big achievement for me, one of the biggest wins of my career so far,” Bansod said after her win.

Growing up idolising Nehwal (who wouldn’t in India) and her power game, Bansod used the word “overawed” when she spoke about how the former world No 1 used to make her feel as a kid taking up the sport. In the immediate aftermath of her second-round win, Bansod said it hadn’t sunk in.

But, on court, when the match was on, all you could see was the razor-sharp focus and a determination to win... the focus was clear, the hunger evident. She moved Nehwal front and back with a great combination of drops and clears, kept her calm even when the veteran used all her guile to make a comeback in the opening game, pumping her fists constantly to keep her attention high, and eventually closed out the match 21-17, 21-9 in 34 minutes. Her celebration at the end of it all was understated too.

Reflecting on the win, she said: “This has not sunk in yet. The feeling is great and I was really excited after the win. She has been my idol because she has been the flag bearer of women’s badminton in India for more than a decade. Seeing her matches when I started out, I used to get very overawed by her game. Her style of play, she has got a lot of power so I idolise that in her game. Today I played an all-round game, there was nothing specific about my game plan.”

Having to endure a difficult phase as have all junior players in recent times, Bansod’s aim is to improve her world rankings in the near future so that she gets to play these matches more often. The player from Nagpur is currently ranked 111th. “I am aiming for better ranking in the near future so that I can play in high ranking tournaments like Super 500, Super 300 and Super 1000, so that I could improve my ranking faster. The journey in the last two years has been difficult in many ways because of the pandemic as training has not been the way it was before the pandemic.”

Bansod has been a near-constant presence in the senior ranking tournaments and has so far won three All India Senior Ranking tournaments – the first one was in Bareilly in 2018, the next was in Kozhikode, Kerala in 2019 and the third one was in Hyderabad last year.

“My coach Sanjay Mishra has taken special efforts to keep up my training during these difficult times and he has kept special sessions for me during the lockdown periods so that I don’t miss training. It’s because of that I could win these tournaments [ranking events].

“I don’t think there was any pressure on me today. I just thought that I have to give my best, this was just one more match I thought and wanted to play freely.”

Nehwal, who has been dealing with injuries in recent times, lavished praise on her younger opponent after the match. “She’s very good, doing well at a high level. She is a really good rally player, she’s going to improve from her level,” she said.

Indeed, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the general feeling before the match was that the youngster would perhaps be the favourite against Nehwal. That was largely because of Bansod’s recent performances especially the ones against the likes of Pornpawee Chochuwong and Akane Yamaguchi at the Uber Cup and Sudirman Cup.

“My performances in Uber Cup and Sudirman Cup four-five months ago were definitely good. I have learnt a lot from that experience and I got to play with Saina during practice sessions. That experience did help me today.”

In the Twitter chat organised by Badminton Association of India, coach Mishra had referred to those matches, even if they eventually ended in defeats, as potential game-changers for Bansod. He had said that, in her own words after those events, Bansod felt, “mujhe lagta hai mein kisi ko bhi hara sakthi hoon ab (I feel like I can defeat anyone now).

It is not right to immediately put pressure on them, he added, in terms of results and titles but these sort of experiences will do any youngster, not just Bansod, a world of good.

Asked where she needs to improve, Malvika said matter-of-factly, “I think that after having a big lead, I tend to lose points. I need to cut down on unforced errors.”

It is this clarity of thought, and a work ethic that her coach holds in high esteem, that augurs well for Malvika Bansod. The left-hander is clearly on the right path for now.

(With PTI inputs)

Quarterfinal action begins on Friday at 1 pm and will be broadcast on Sony Sports Network in India.