For many, the start of the Saina Nehwal vs PV Sindhu rivalry should have been much more special. Instead, what we saw was a demolition job that resembled not so much a rivalry but a schooling.
The Indian Badminton League – that finished on Saturday – had in the eyes of many the perfect finale. A match between Saina and Sindhu; a match between the queen and the pretender; a match between India’s top two players; a match with the title on the line; a match with reputations on the line too.
At the start of the IBL, many wrote off Saina Nehwal. She had once again gone to the World Championships and returned empty-handed. Sindhu, on the other hand, had become the first Indian woman shuttler to win bronze; the first Indian singles player since Prakash Padukone to get a singles medal at the Worlds.
Sindhu was the rising star and Saina needed to prove her credentials to the Indian public all over again.
The first instalment of the rivalry on 15 August was all Saina. She beat Sindhu 21-19, 21-8 and as the match went on, her dominance in every aspect of the game was very evident.
Sindhu started of well, racing to a lead too but then Saina came back impressively to systematically take down the 18-year-old and any other false notions that had arisen.
“Actually the media and public hyped up our match so much. Otherwise we play each other everyday at the academy. But since this match was so talked about, I felt a bit of pressure and it became a little tight in the beginning,” Saina had said after the match.
But come the final, they were both expected to be ready. The first encounter on Independence day was also the first time the duo had clashed in an official match. Practices are different, there is no pressure. But on Saturday, they were expected to take things up a notch.
On paper, they are the perfect rivals. Saina’s game is built to break down opponents by wearing them down. She has her shots too but she isn’t particularly inventive. Instead, she sticks to what she knows best. Sindhu, taller and with a longer reach, plays more shots and likes to win her points – not wait for mistakes.
They train at the same academy, so they have seen each other at close quarters for a long time. Sindhu, in particular, would have had an eye on her senior… a player she’d like to best before long.
Sindhu would have had time to prepare a game plan for her senior rival. She would have had time to sit down and focus on specific areas of Saina’s game that she would like to attack. And perhaps she even did all of that – but Saina just didn’t allow Sindhu to put any of that into practice.
She started off by smashing into Sindu’s body – longer reach can’t count for much in that case. Then, once Sindhu started getting used to that line of attack, she started tossing the shuttle out wide. And then she mixed and matched till a frustrated Sindhu could do little but scream in anguish. Saina won easily 21-15, 21-7.
The difference was experience. India’s national coach Pullela Gopichand likes to micro-manage. When his wards are playing in any international tournament, he is on the sidelines and there is a constant stream of instructions. He even tells them when to catch a breath. Saina, for example, even learnt how to undo a shoelace and re-tie it to catch a breather from Gopichand.
The days are managed too. When to get up, what to eat, how much to practice, when to sleep – everything is as Gopichand wants it. His idea is that it allows the players to just play but in another sense, it also hinders their growth.
While Saina has now been around for a while and has even spent some time with another coach, Sindhu hasn’t. So the youngster would have probably missed her coach more than Saina. And mentally, that might have made a big difference. Saina knew what she needed to do even without Gopichand, Sindhu didn’t.
It’s still early days in the rivalry that should only get better. For now Saina has jumped to a 2-0 lead but Sindhu should be catching up before too long. Given, how young both of them, this just the beginning.