Just before the start of the 2018 Commonwealth Games women’s singles final between Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu, a commentator spoke about how the general feeling among the badminton fans and even in the media suggested that the latter was the favourite to clinch the gold medal.
The odds were clearly in favour of the 22-year-old World and Olympic silver medallist given her recent run of form and the fact that Nehwal isn’t getting any younger and hasn’t been at her best since the career-threatening knee injury in 2016.
Nehwal was obviously not listening to that. Thankfully so. The result was there for all to see when she let out a roar after sealing the gold medal in Gold Coast on Sunday.
Not for the first time
The whole talk reminded one of the inaugural edition of the Indian Badminton League, the predecessor to the ongoing Premier Badminton League, and the match-up between the country’s shuttle queen and her challenger back in 2013.
Even then, the 28-year-old had suffered an injury late in 2012 while Sindhu had become the first Indian women’s singles player to win a world championship bronze just a week before the IBL kicked off. And when Nehwal was asked about the face-off on the first day of the event, she simply refused to answer the query. She went on to beat her younger opponent twice and then took a dig at those who had suggested that she wasn’t the favourite by saying, ‘I am not finished yet.’
For those who have followed Nehwal’s career from the day she broke into limelight by beating the then shuttle queen Aparna Popat in the Satellite final in New Delhi in 2005 or even before, the single-minded determination and hunger to win at all costs has always stood out for the former world number one.
Many seniors thought that her attitude bordered on arrogance as the then 15-year-old would routinely make statements about beating them as they don’t train as hard as she did.
That belief in her own work ethic and the determination to crush opponents once they were down has been the hallmark of her journey over the last one and half decades. During that spell, there was a period in which she did not lose a final for three years between 2008 to 2010.
The perfect storm
The emergence of Sindhu only made her more determined to safeguard her turf and that was the reason she left the Gopichand Academy in August 2014 soon after the Rio Olympics silver medallist had won her second World Championship bronze. Nehwal felt she needed more personalised attention to stay at the top.
Her move bore fruit as she won the world championship silver the very next year and became the first Indian woman badminton player to be crowned the world number one. She was, perhaps, guilty of over training in her quest to win the elusive Olympics gold in Rio and ended up suffering a career-threatening knee injury, which gave rise to speculation that it could spell the end of the 2012 London Olympics bronze medallist.
But Nehwal returned, and that too almost a month and a half before even the doctors treating her had predicted. She would work longer hours than suggested by her physio and trainers and did not even heed to coach Vimal Kumar’s advice to take it easy when she returned to the circuit.
It was sheer determination that saw her bag the world championship bronze in Glasgow when no one gave her a chance and she showed that she can keep her ego out of the equation by approaching Gopichand and returning to Hyderabad as she felt the move was important for her both emotionally and game wise.
Nehwal can be extremely stubborn when she makes up her mind and can go to any length to prove a point. She did that by conceding a first round tie at match point in the 2012 Syed Modi International when she was forced to turn up for the tournament by the then Badminton Association of India president Dr Akhilesh Das Gupta despite the player asking for rest.
Nehwal had not even blinked while pulling out of the 2014 Commonwealth Games once she was clear that she won’t be at her best while trying to defend the crown she won in 2010 after saving a match point against Wong Mew Choo.
She once again put her foot down when BAI secretary Anup Narang tried to force her to play the Asian Team Championship soon after the India Open in February this year and went on threaten the Indian Olympic Association that she would pull out of the Commonwealth Games if her father was not allowed to stay in the Games Village with her as promised before she left from India.
A clear plan
But there is definitely a method to that madness as she showed in the final against Sindhu on Sunday. Over the years, the template that the world’s top players have been using against the 22-year-old world number 3 is to engage her in long rallies and outlast her with sharp drops and retrieving abilities.
It was a template Nehwal had used to beat the Chinese. But against Sindhu she always looks like a transformed player, taking the initiative to go for the kill and comes up with a far better game plan to counter the big hitting abilities of her compatriot.
If it was the body smashes that worked for Nehwal in the IBL back in 2013, the 28-year-old has been a lot more innovative in her strategy during her last three wins over Sindhu starting from the Senior Nationals in November.
She was quick off the blocks and used those booming smashes to try and finish the rallies early. And when they did go longer, she has developed the sliced drop and a cross court net push that can make shifting of weight to return difficult for the lanky Sindhu.
And even when she lost a point because of an unforced error at the end of those rallies, the smile on Nehwal’s face told the story of how she had the measure of her opponent and she knew exactly what she was doing.
On her part, Sindhu hasn’t found a way to counter Nehwal’s strategy and just tries to take the match into the third game so that her superior fitness comes into play.
Nehwal, who played all the matches in the team event as Sindhu needed some rest after the ankle injury in training, may not be at her physical best anymore but her experience now allows her to out-think her opponent at crucial junctures. And even the best in the world still admit that India’s only world junior champion is still as intimidating to face across the net as she was before because once is gets the upper hand in a contest, she is just a transformed player.
And the 64-shot rally at the fag end of the second game, when it was clear that she was tiring and needed to finish the Commonwealth Games final in straight games, she showed what her drive can achieve. She showed how a determined Nehwal can push herself with single-minded determination when the goal is in sight.
The 28-year-old has an uncanny ability to shut the world around her when she focuses on achieving something despite the ever increasing commercial commitments and increasing personal responsibilities.
It may be too optimistic to hope that Nehwal will consistently challenge for the titles in every tournament she plays from here on. But she definitely knows how to raise the bar in major competitions and it’s always a pleasure to watch her push the limits of her body and mind when she sets a target for herself, just like she did on Sunday.