For the first time since Pusarla Venkata Sindhu began playing badminton at the international level, the 21-year-old has moved ahead of her fellow-Hyderabadi and erstwhile poster girl of Indian badminton, Saina Nehwal, in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings.
In the weekly rankings published on 24 November, Sindhu, by virtue of her triumph in the China Open Super Series, powered past her compatriot into the ninth spot, while pushing Saina down to 11th, the two being separated by the Chinese youngster He Bingjiao. Saina was down three places from her ranking on 17 November, occupying a berth she was most unfamiliar with.
It was the first time since 2009 that Saina had dropped out of the top ten. But it happened only because of her protracted absence from the international circuit, following knee surgery immediately after the 2016 Rio Olympics, and the rehabilitation that followed.
The points that Saina had collected before she went off the circuit were insufficient to allow her to hold on to a top-ten spot, as she was overtaken by players who had played in the last four Super Series events, and performed well enough. The ranking system employed in badminton is an aggregation of points earned at tournaments played in during a particular year; and is different from that used in tennis, where points won at tournaments during the previous year have to be defended.
So, can we conclude that Saina is a spent force, and that the baton of being India’s premier badminton player has effectively been passed on to Sindhu?
In a way, though, it seems downright cruel to refer to Saina, who has been the face of Indian badminton for the past eight years, as an “erstwhile” poster girl. After all, she is just 26, and by no means past her prime. But public memory is notoriously short, and fans have a tendency to remember the most recent one.
How drastically have fortunes changed for the two top Indian shuttlers in recent months! Saina, who was single-handedly responsible for the resurgence of badminton in the country, and who was the first badminton player to win an Olympic medal for her country, at the 2012 London Games, is yet to recover full pace and fitness after her knee surgery.
It may be recalled that the orthopaedic specialist who operated on Saina expressed amazement and horror that she had played in the Olympics with her knee being in the condition that it was. He was convinced there was no way the joint could have taken the pressure of the constant lunging and pushing back that is required during rallies. Possibly, had it been any other tournament than the Olympics, Saina would have sat it out.
Indeed, during the rehabilitation period in October, Saina herself voiced the fear that her badminton career might well have come to an end. No doubt she was concerned about the chances of regaining her position at least among the top five players in the world, if not at the very pinnacle of the rankings, where she did spend a couple of weeks last year before moving down to No 2 behind Spain's Carolina Marin.
Upon her return, Saina was beaten in her very first outing – in the China Open – by Thailand’s Porntip Buranaprasertsuk, a player whom she had not lost to in half a dozen earlier meetings. Her performance against the Thai, ranked 14th in the world, lacked that fine edge and fluid movement, and also exposed her lack of staying power, which had earlier been one of her strong points.
Make no mistake, that fine-tuning of fitness can only be done in the cauldron of matchplay; it can never come during preparation for a comeback after a major injury. As even the greatest tennis player of all time, Roger Federer, has said often, no amount of training can be a substitute for matchplay.
Fortunately for the Indian ace, a chance at redemption came within days of her opening-round defeat in China – she was drawn to play against Porntip in her opening outing of the Hong Kong Open. And, lo and behold! She was able to reverse the result of her China Open clash with the scrappy Porntip, albeit after a protracted struggle.
The Indian ace proceeded to knock out Japanese southpaw Sayaka Sato, against whom she has had consistent trouble in the past, having been stretched the full distance in five of their seven career meetings, though she had won them all. Her improvement in just a week was there for all to see.
But then, Saina came up against the speedy Hong Kong player, Cheung Ngan Yi, whose 26th world rank belies the quality of her game. The former world No 1 showed plenty of pluck in fighting back from a near-hopeless position in the decider of that quarter-final against Cheung before, as coach Vimal Kumar put it, “her legs would not allow her to go that extra mile”.
Nevertheless, that 19-21 third-game showed that Saina had been very close to getting back to the high level that she has set herself over the years. And that, in only her second tournament after her return from a potentially career-ruining injury. Having missed her berth in the year-ending Destination Dubai Super Series, she will only be able to get into matchplay in the new year.
Saina’s record and trophy cabinet speak volumes for her place in the annals of Indian badminton. Apart from her London Olympics bronze, she was the silver medallist behind Marin, both at the 2015 World Championships and 2015 All England Championships. She has bagged 22 international titles, including seven coveted Super Series crowns. And all this, when she has still to celebrate her 27th birthday.
By comparison, Sindhu has one Olympic silver medal and two bronze medals at the World Championships (2013 and 2014) in her satchel. She has won five Grand Prix Gold titles over the years, but bagged her first Super Series title only last week at the China Open. These are impressive achievements, but cannot stand up to the record of her former Gopichand Academy batchmate.
Given her steely temperament, enormous grit and determination that she has shown over the eight years of her glittering international career, Saina can, by no means, be consigned to the ranks of 'has-beens'.
There is every chance that now that she has tested herself again in top-level international competition, and been pronounced just a little shy of being at her best, she will leave no stone unturned to get back to where she belongs – at, or very near, the top of the heap.