Statutory warning first. Don’t expect a ‘Made in China’ quality product in the semifinal clash between Saina Nehwal and China’s Wang Yihan, the world number 1 in women’s badminton. Wang is a top class player and in their previous five encounters, the Hyderabadi hurricane has never been able to blow her away. The two last met in January this year at the Malaysian Open where Saina lost 15-21, 16-21. In two of the three encounters in 2011, Saina managed to stretch Wang to three sets but could never alter the end result.
But this past track record will not count for much when the two square up at the Wembley Arena in the semifinal. It will be a new karmabhoomi where the pressure in fact, will be on Wang to ensure the final of the London Olympics does not feature Saina vs China. After the fiasco in the women’s doubles, where its team was disqualified, China cannot afford another upset. The Chinese team will no doubt, be excited that three of the four semifinalists are from its stable and would not like the ‘Great Neh-Wall of India’ to lower her neck for a medal of any hue.
Saina would do well to take inspiration from the quality of fight put up by compatriot Kashyap against top seed Lee Chong Wei. Kashyap made Lee sweat it out for every point, especially in the first game. It was a great sight to see an Indian not losing the match before stepping on court against high quality competition. Saina herself got the better of two other top ranked Chinese, Li Xuerui and Shixian Wang at the Indonesia Open in June, after which the Chinese went into a huddle plotting ‘Operation Saina’.
So far the route to the Olympic gold has gone as per plan for Saina. Coach Pullela Gopi Chand believed his ward had the game to advance to the semis. Losing 5.5 kg in weight in the run-up to the Olympics has meant Saina is a fraction quicker on court and her retrievals have been swift. Importantly, she is peaking at the right time. But now comes the big hurdle. The Chinese will be very well-prepared for Saina, having analysed videos of her match shot by cameras positioned at different angles. Gopi’s guess is the Chinese coaches must have made the top three play with Saina-like players to prepare them psychologically as well for London.
What should Saina do in the most important match of her career so far? She needs to play aggressive badminton from the word go but be wary of ending up like a pumped-up Zaheer Khan in the 2003 cricket World Cup final against Australia. Two, it is important to ensure she doesn’t let Wang dictate the game. Gopi has carried with him a dossier on Wang and Saina will have to plan every move with Gopi before she steps on to court. The semifinal will be the virtual final of the Olympics, as the challenger to the throne will fight to defang Wang’s armoury.
In 2001, Gopi spent a sleepless night before the final of the All England championship, tossing restlessly in bed. My guess is Saina too would have felt the London night was too long last night. Meanwhile, the rest of India is seeing some fancy London dreams.
(TS Sudhir is the author of ‘Saina Nehwal : An Inspirational Biography’)