“Mentally, I am very strong. I never think that I am up against a formidable Chinese or a Korean. I keep reminding myself that when I was 13 years old, I defeated seniors who were 23 and 24.”
Saina Nehwal has told me this on more than one occasion. She would have told herself the same before she stepped on court in the pre-quarterfinal match at the London Olympics against 35-year-old Yao Jie of the Netherlands. And perhaps would do the same today as she squares up against familiar rival, 33-year-old Tine Baun of Denmark.
When she was younger, Saina’s seniors would complain that she showed them no respect. She was seen as being brash and her coaches spoke of her aggressive “maar doongi” attitude. The intense desire to defeat her opponents defined her personality on court and, in case the opponent had defeated her in a previous encounter, Saina’s idea of sweet revenge would be to try and defeat her by the same scoreline.
In the case of Tine Baun, she and Saina are locked 3-3 in career meetings. In the last six encounters, both have won three matches each though significantly, Saina defeated Tine in the last two face-offs in December 2011 (World Superseries) and January (Malaysian Open) this year. But Saina can underestimate the two-time All-England champion at her own peril and will be wary of Tine’s experience.
In the pre-quarters, Saina allowed the China-born world number 20 Yao to dictate the rallies in the second game. A similar lapse of concentration against Tine, who is world number 7, will prove very costly. If she manages to get past the Dane, she will run into the Great Wall of China, world number 1, Wang Yihan in the semis, against who she has never won in the previous five encounters.
Four years ago, when the 18-year-old reached the quarters at the Beijing Olympics, the world gaped at her spunk. In London, nothing short of an Olympic medal would satisfy Saina’s fans across the world.
Back home in Hyderabad, her father, Dr Harvir Singh — who is an agricultural scientist at Directorate of Oilseeds Research — has also been preparing for an important day. A research audit of the work done by his team of ten scientists in the last five years is scheduled today and Harvir Singh hopes he will manage to take a break from the world of groundnut and castor to watch his ‘Steffi’ in action.
TS Sudhir is the author of ‘Saina Nehwal : An Inspirational Biography’ that released in July 2012.