Saina's loss has a pattern to it

Saina Nehwal’s uncharacteristic loss to lower-ranked Chinese Li Xuerui in the quarterfinals of the Thailand Open had everyone wondering if the Hyderabadi was out of form, short on practice or hindered by a freak knee injury.

However, as upsets are created in the world of badminton, with due respect to underdogs, sometimes it's not just about their performance but the scoring system that is playing havoc with the results.

A lot of sports have experienced changes in their rules – from the basic game to the attire, the rules have been revised. Some of these revisions were long pending and required for the betterment of the game while others are brought about as experiments to see how the players and spectators react.

Coming back to badminton, the newly proposed rule making it mandatory for female players to wear skirts while competing has been put on the backburner, but the rule that had significant impact on the game is the altered scoring pattern.

Saina Nehwal

Saina Nehwal has been done in by the scoring pattern. AFP

The new scoring pattern came into effect from August 2006. This was brought in by the World Badminton Federation (BWF) as an experiment and subsequently, made permanent. It consists of playing the best of three games of 21 points, unlike the old scoring method where the men played until 15 points and women until 11. Apart from the number of points played, the big change is that now points can be won without holding serve. Earlier, the points could only be won on one’s serve.

I think that this scoring system is a leveller. In the sense, the gap between good players and very good players has been reduced considerably. It's common for an ordinary player to win 13-14 points in a game. Thereafter, the game can swing any way. This is the prime reason why top players like Peter Gade and Taufik Hidayat voiced their opinion against this system. Their dominance on the world stage would come under threat.

Consistency and concentration play a vital role in the game today. One cannot afford to take it easy at any point. Therefore, we have seen matches where the players play well right through and then with a brief loss of focus end up on the losing side. Also, a lead taken by one player cannot be closed in on easily. This was not the case with the earlier format where a slip in concentration could receive a reprieve.

Smart strategy, especially towards the end of the game, is important – because with this scoring, there is many a slip between the cup and the lip. A classic example would be Saina’s loss to Maria Kristin Yulianti in the quarters of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She squandered away a lead of 11-3 in the deciding game. Her end-game strategy faltered, hence she lost focus and paid a heavy price.

This scoring pattern has also resulted in more conservative strokeplay. The players are not offered much room to try out new strokes and tactics. Every error results in a change in the scoreboard. Hence, players prefer to play it safe and that takes away the charm of the game with its otherwise wide array of strokes.

Also, the styles of play have become somewhat similar. Players around the world have realised that there are only that many strokes that can be touted as safe and effective at the same time. So, a majority of them resort to applying those strokes, making the game predictable.

However, this scoring pattern isn’t all that bad. The biggest plus is that this format has the potential to throw up many surprise results, hence making the game interesting to watch. Today, even a lower-ranked player stands a chance to create an upset. This was not the case in the old scoring pattern where the odds of a better player beating the underdog were very high. If a player was better, 99% of the times he would triumph.

Also, each point now becomes important. That makes the game more intense and gripping. The mandatory 60-second break at 11 in each game and 120 seconds in between games allows for coaches to guide the players. But more importantly, it allows for TV commercials. This helps in roping in sponsors. This was one of the main reasons behind adopting this scoring pattern as the BWF felt that the sport would get to rake in some additional money through sponsorships.

From the point of view of the audience, this scoring may make for more interesting viewing, but for purists like me, I prefer the old scoring of 11 points and 15 points. This debate is akin to the cricket debate about Test matches being superior to the T-20s.

With the current scoring format, it takes a special kind of effort to preserve one’s form and ranking. Therefore, I urge the fans not to get disheartened with the odd losses. It’s not that the champions are out of form – sometimes its merely a question of the scoring pattern playing tricks.

Saina has been performing consistently under this scoring system and that says a lot about her temperament and calibre. With an infrequent unfortunate loss, one might be tempted to slot her as out of form. However, please bear in mind that this isn’t always the case. It could very well be the 21 point predicament.

Published Date: Jun 14, 2011 06:14 pm | Updated Date: Feb 01, 2012 03:10 pm