Mumbai: Saina Nehwal has become a strong medal prospect at the upcoming London Olympics after her dominating performance over formidable Chinese players at the Indonesia Open, asserts nine-time national badminton champion and two-time Olympian Aparna Popat.
“There was a lot of pressure on her as everybody was talking about matching up to the Chinese. Beating two Chinese at the Indonesia Open which had such a strong field and winning the title will give her a lot of confidence for the Games,” Aparna said.
The 34-year-old former shuttler, now an Administrative Manager in the Indian Oil Corporation, had reached the pre-quarterfinals of women’s singles in the 2004 Athens Olympics that was bettered by Saina four years later at the Beijing Games when she made the last eight.
Asked whether she expects Saina to climb the medal rostrum in the 27 July-12 August London Games, Aparna said: “Certainly. Can’t say which medal, but I am sure she will come back with a medal,” said the Mumbai-based former player whose continuous reign at the top in the nationals was halted by Saina in 2006.
About the Chinese threat, Aparna said that while Saina had been beating them regularly in 2010, in 2011 injuries affected her game.
“When you play a Chinese, you have to be at the top of your game. You have to be very close to 100 percent fitness-wise, otherwise it’s going to be very difficult. When she is fully fit and has had her preparation time, the results have gone in her favour,” said Aparna.
Aparna agreed with Saina’s own view that the Hyderabadi has improved her defence. “She has said she has improved her defence as she has been sticking in her points. Even when strokes are not going in her favour she has managed to keep the shuttle in play. You can say she has worked on her defence,” Aparna observed.
Aparna felt the five-week preparation, Saina is planning now for London, is going to be crucial. “This preparation will be the key. This is the last bit of fine tuning that she can do. Having this preparation is very important. She should remain mentally fresh and injury free,” said Aparna, who bagged a singles silver medal in the 1998 Commonwealth Games at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Endorsing Saina’s views about the expected playing conditions in London, Aparna said the rallies are going to be longer as the shuttle speed would be slower than was the case in Indonesia.
“Slow courts basically means that the shuttles would move a little slower. So the type of game you are playing has to be altered a bit. In Indonesia the courts were faster, so the shuttles were faster. And you play more attacking and more risky game. The rallies will be shorter as you can play more strokes.
“In London probably the rallies are going to be longer and you may not be seeing as many quick points. Matches will be longer,” explained Aparna.
Aparna said Saina’s experience of playing in Beijing four years ago would stand her in good stead. “There is more pressure in representing the country in the Olympics for two reasons; one is it comes after every four years. Secondly, a lot more people would be watching/following the Games all over the world. There’s going to be much more pressure,” she said.
From her own experience, Aparna said there was no hard and fast rule on how to mentally prepare for the Games. “It depends what works for you. Some persons want to remain without pressure. Some people would like to have a bit of pressure so that they can perform at their best. It depends on what gets her motivated and keeps her motivated,” she said.
Coach P Gopi Chand would play a very important role in Saina’s run in the Games, said Aparna. “It’s (Gopi’s presence) is very important. Gopi is the main force behind Saina, no doubt.”
While saying Saina remained the best bet for a medal, Aparna also saw potential medal winners elsewhere like the world championship bronze medal-winning women’s pair of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa and men’s main hope P Kashyap.
“I am quite optimistic about India’s medal chances: One medal for sure, more also possible. Saina is the best bet but it can be any one.
“A medal is very possible in women’s doubles. They (Jwala and Ashwini) are obviously bronze medalists in the World championships. Can’t rule them out of medal contention.
“The doubles field is only 16 players. You have a couple of good matches you are in with a medal chance. The matches will be very close. Two points here and there will make a lot of difference even in the mixed doubles,” Aparna pointed out.
“Kashyap did well in the India Open and the Indonesia Open now. He is going to be seen in Singapore and let’s see what he does there. In this scoring format and considering the pressure of the Olympics, anything can happen because the Olympics has thrown up some surprises in the past,” she added.