A little over a year ago, when Saina Nehwal took her first tentative steps towards rehabilitation from a career-threatening knee injury that required reconstruction, her badminton obituary was already being written by several learned observers of the game. Their gloomy prognostications were given free rein when Saina herself voiced the fear that her career appeared to be at an end.
However, the Hyderabad-domiciled Haryanvi underlined the fact that passion for the game, steely temperament, desire to excel and endless capacity for hard toil can get one back to the pedestal. Those that had already anointed Pusarla Venkata Sindhu as the new Indian shuttle queen were made to eat their premature encomiums on more than one occasion, not last on Sunday, 15 April.
With the 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medal at stake, and her taller, younger compatriot having been seeded one rung above her, at the very top of the women’s singles draw, Saina faced her sternest test since taking those tentative first steps on the Far Eastern circuit in November 2016, on the obstacle-strewn path back to the top.
Even though the World No 12 had scored twice over Sindhu, compared to one reverse at the 22-year-old World No 3’s hands since her return to the international circuit, the clash for the yellow metal on Australia’s Gold Coast was going to be the litmus test. There were grave doubts whether the 28-year-old, who had played all five mixed team matches and four clashes in the individual event, would be able to repeat her gold-winning feat of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.
In the event, Saina came through the searching examination with flying colours. The veteran’s 21-18, 23-21 triumph was almost a mirror-image of their scores in the 2017 Indian National final at Nagpur. Even the course of the match went along similar lines, with Saina making up a substantial deficit in the second game, to pip her rival over the extra points in a match that was high on emotion as much as quality, with electricity literally crackling in the air as the two athletes raced around the court, trying their best to not let the shuttle land on their side of the court.
“If I had lost this one, there would have been calls for my retirement,” the victor said, later. Even though the older player had established a clear edge over her Pullela Gopichand Academy stable-mate, reversing her loss to Sindhu in the March 2017 India Open by beating her arch-rival in the November 2017 National final, and again in the Indonesia Masters on India’s 2018 Republic Day, she realised that the knives would be out if she faltered in the summit clash on the final day of the 2018 Games.
The tussle was protracted, lasting over an hour for just the two games that were necessary to decide the destination of the gold medal – coincidentally, Hyderabad, whatever the result of the encounter.
Saina, playing the first game against the direction of the drift in the stadium, came out of the blocks with all guns blazing, naked aggression apparent in every pore of her being. She had decided that relentless attack over two games was the only viable strategy against her higher ranked fellow countrywoman. Keep Sindhu on the defensive, bottle up her powerful smash, and force her to push the shuttle out at the baseline, thanks to the diabolical drift.
Ergo, Saina went for the kill at the slightest opportunity. Dribble and smash. Pummel the shuttle from any possible spot or angle, follow the stroke into the net for even the slightest opening, to ram the shuttle down. Clear the bird only if forced on the defensive, but clear it with limited height, so that Sindhu did not get the opportunity of getting under the shuttle and employing her reach and considerable power.
It was a high-risk plan, for, had it backfired, it would have left the Sindhu with far more energy for the decider, if the match were to go the full distance. Saina did her best to end the rallies by the short route, but the obdurate defence that her antagonist put up precluded the chances of short, sharp rallies.
Saina had to employ far greater energy to stay in control of the rallies with constant smashing and efforts to control the net. It is a tribute to her fitness and staying power that she could last the entire length of the two games at the furious pace they were played. On hindsight, the initial 9-4 lead she grabbed, thanks to Sindhu’s nervous over-hitting on the defensive clear, helped keep her a few points ahead all the way through.
Saina’s fierce fighting spirit was very much in evidence when she trailed 9-14 in the second stanza. Point by point, she overhauled her lanky rival, with one particularly demanding, draining 60-stroke rally taking her to within striking distance at 18-19. Nor did she panic when Sindhu went to game-point 20-19, although she realised that she would have serious trouble if the match stretched to a decider.
With neither player willing to concede an inch, Saina forced deuce, and then went to gold medal point at 21-20. Although her opponent staved off the danger, the 2008 world junior champion and former World No 1 would not be denied a second time; and, when a nervous Sindhu net shot drifted out on her backhand sideline, Saina had proved that she continues to be this country’s pre-eminent female player.
For Sindhu, it was a fifth runner-up spot in an important tournament since the 2016 Rio Olympics; and all of them being heart-rendingly narrow losses. In Brazil, she had surrendered the gold medal to Spain’s Carolina Marin; at the 2017 World Championships in Glasgow, she was beaten over the extra points in the decider by Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara; in the year-ending 2017 Dubai Superseries grand finals, she lost at 19-21 in the third game to another Japanese, Akane Yamaguchi.
Her two losses to Saina in the finals of the 2017 Indian Nationals and the 2018 Commonwealth Games have also been by wafer-thin margins, albeit in straight games. She was beaten in the second game by 23-25 at Nagpur, and 21-23 on the Gold Coast, thereby revealing a worrying pattern of losing close matches to several rivals over the extra points.
As for Kidambi Srikanth, it was a rude awakening from the euphoria he must have felt after attaining the pinnacle of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings just three days earlier. The manner of his three-game loss to former World No 1, Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia, in the gold medal clash showed that it was going to be far more difficult to retain the top spot than to reach it.
The Ravulapalem, Andhra Pradesh native had secured the world No 1 ranking on a technicality, after the earlier incumbent, Denmark’s world champion, Viktor Axelsen, was stripped of 1,660 points, thanks to the shifting of the Malaysian Masters from April last year to July this year, with the Commonwealth Games taking up the April slot.
Axelsen has been out of action since requiring surgery for a foot injury sustained in the second round of the Indonesian Masters in January this year, but is expected to be back in action next week. His congratulatory tweet to Srikanth after the latter had been conferred with the World No 1 ranking had a sly rider at the end, with a thinly veiled threat: “See you on court soon!”
But even before Axelsen could get a chance of hauling Srikanth over the coals in an effort to regain his top spot, Lee had torn deep rents in the 25-year-old Indian ace’s armour by gaining sweet revenge for his straight-games reverse at Srikanth’s hands in the mixed team event at these Games. The 35-year-old Lee’s three-game triumph, after dropping the first game, was remarkable for the commanding manner in which he romped to victory in the decider.
Not for nothing has the Malaysian been hailed as one of the two players (the other being China’s Lin Dan) to have comprehensively dominated world badminton over the last decade. He had declared to his country’s press on Saturday that he would come to the gold medal match like a wounded tiger that would show his prey no mercy; and he kept his word.
Only in the first game of the final did Srikanth reveal the reasons for his crucial win over Lee in the mixed team final that, on hindsight, becomes the main reason for India’s 3-1 triumph and capture of the gold medal. Had Srikanth lost to Lee, as the Malaysian team management had expected, the women’s doubles combination of Vivian Hoo and Mei Kuan Chow that eventually won the individual gold medal at a canter would have probably had Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy for breakfast in the fifth match that eventually did not need to be played.
Like Saina, Srikanth needed a hit-and-run approach against Lee. He managed to implement that strategy in the first game, controlling the net and troubling Lee constantly with his leaping overhead smashes to either flank. But, as the match progressed, the Indian strangely went into his shell, perhaps disconcerted by the stream of returns that kept coming back, and the Malaysian’s own trenchant counter-attack. And once he cut down on his speedy, attacking mien, Srikanth was like a ship adrift in the maelstrom of Lee’s controlled aggression.
One has to doff one’s hat to the experienced old-timers – a 28-year-old and another who is 35, both supposed to be well past their best – who walked away with the stellar honours from the badminton courts of the Carrara Sports & Leisure Centre. Saina Nehwal and Lee Chong Wei captured the most coveted medals, proving yet again that old is indeed gold!
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Updated Date: Apr 15, 2018 23:26:53 IST