In the run-up to the Denmark Open, Saina Nehwal had come under fire from Badminton Association of India officials for her decision to skip the Senior National badminton championship in Srinagar and spend that time attending various felicitation functions across the country after bringing home India's sole badminton medal at the London Olympics in August.
The country’s shuttle queen had refused to even come to Srinagar for the opening or closing ceremony and that had irked the mandarins of BAI and they have now set up a three-member committee to ensure that all the players play the Nationals from the coming season.
While the emphasis on playing the Nationals is understandable, the criticism of the country’s most successful shuttler at that point was unwarranted since Saina desperately needed a break from the sport to refuel her hunger to win before she made a comeback to competitive badminton.
Though the official reason for Saina pulling out of the Senior Nationals and the China and Japan Super Series was an injury to her right knee, it was the mental fatigue rather than the injury which the Commonwealth Games gold medallist had to recover from before embarking on another challenging journey.
Ever since Saina lost her quarterfinal match against Maria Kristine Yulianti of Indonesia in Beijing 2008, the 22-year-old had set her eyes on the London Games and for the last four years single-mindedly worked towards achieving that goal. In the last few months before the Olympics, Saina had even cut down her communication with others, switching her cell phone off for prolonged hours and even rejecting sponsorship and endorsement offers.
It was therefore understandable that India’s shuttle queen needed to let her hair down for once and enjoy the superstar status – a perk she had earned through those gruelling training sessions and never-say-die attitude on the court.
And Saina’s decision to delay her return to competitive badminton was the ultimate difference between her and her opponents in Denmark.
Be it the first round encounter against Yeon Ju Bae of Korea or the second round tie against Minatsu Mitani of Japan, Saina looked rusty at the start but never appeared jaded like her opponents. Especially against Mitani where she conceded the first 15 points, the Indian shuttler had a smile on her face throughout and knew that she could still enjoy playing the match instead of bothering about the outcome.
It was the same even during the business end of the tournament with Saina looking a lot more relaxed as against her opponents who were giving their all to stay in the hunt. It is easy to blame the lack of fitness of her opponents for the way they caved in. But at that level, almost all the players are equally fit.
But be it Tine Baun, Yihan Wang or even Juliane Schenk -- whom Saina defeated quarterfinals onwards in that order – no one could not hide their frustration every time a mistake was made. In most cases they won the longer rallies but it was the short exchanges which needed more alertness where they came a cropper. All of them had immediately returned to competition after London Games and the mental fatigue was visible in their approach.
Saina admitted as much in the post presentation chat when she said, “After the London Olympics, I attended a lot of felicitations and did a lot of things. I guess that allowed me to refresh.”
In the future also, Saina plans to pick and choose her tournaments as she aims to stay in the hunt for an Olympic gold in 2016. All the badminton fans would to more than happy to see a battle ready Saina every time she takes the court from here on.