The uncanny strokes produced by Tai Tzu Ying's wrist had left Saina Nehwal panting on the other half of the court. She was bemused. All her aggression had fizzled out. She ran out of options, or maybe Tai never really gave Saina the chance to get back into the match.
The World No 1 from Chinese Taipei has always been a tough nut to crack, at least for Saina as the overall record stood at 5-12 in Tai’s favour. One would believe that Tai has still not moved on from the fact that she was famously outmuscled by then World No 1 Saina on her 16th birthday in the final of Singapore Open eight years ago.
Even after exhibiting a spirited performance in the final on Sunday, coupled with an aggressive approach that reminded fans of a certain Carolina Marin and her ear-piercing scream, Saina couldn’t muster enough power to tame the relentless Tai. Yet, it was the 28-year-old’s best show on the erstwhile Superseries orbit since 2015 when she dominated the women’s circuit with elan.
However, the final wasn't the toughest match and Tai wasn't the toughest opponent she faced in the Odense Sports Park last week.
Trailing in the deciding game, Saina saved two match points with gusto at 20-21 and 21-22 to snatch a hard-fought victory in the first round and deny an early, embarrassing ouster at the hands of World No 24 Yi Ngan Cheung. The big smile that followed after that win said about the 81-minute long debilitating battle.
At the end of it, Saina proved that she is fitter than ever, hungrier than ever, adding relevance to her ‘fighter’ tag.
“Saina is trying to understand her body better, finding new ways after looking at how the game is going now. It takes time and this is the transition period for her. She is still the champion she was before. It just a matter of time till she starts winning titles again,” her fiancé Parupalli Kashyap would say, who sat behind Saina’s corner along with one of the assistant coaches, Mohammed Siyadath Ullah.
Next up for Saina was a tougher challenge, on paper and in reality too. It had been four long years since the London Olympics medallist had beaten Japan's pint-sized warrior Akane Yamaguchi. Her last win came at the 2014 China Open. Moreover, in half-a-dozen meetings, all of which have taken place over the past two years, the Hyderabad-based shuttler had consistently tasted defeat against the young Japanese ace.
Entering the court as the favourite to progress, little did Yamaguchi know that Saina had a different plan. The first round win over Yi had given Saina the license to rise to her full stature as the World No 10 dominated the second-seeded Yamaguchi for a facile 36-minute 21-15, 21-17 triumph in the second round. It was evident how the Indian shuttle queen imbibed the valuable inputs from 2014 Commonwealth Games champion Kashyap, who insisted Saina on pushing Yamaguchi towards the tramlines, to show that she is far from finished.
“It's just that at that moment, it's just a very instinctive message I gave to her because I noticed her playing too much at the front, and I decided to put her back and keep her moving. I wouldn't say the same thing all the time. At that point, it was the right decision to do. Basically, to put myself in Saina's shoes and think what I should do right now,” Kashyap explains.
After a surprise straight-games win over one of the best retrievers, Saina was pitted against reigning world champion and yet another player whose retrieving skills has given her many a headache – Nozomi Okuhara.
Like Yamaguchi, her compatriot Okuhara had enjoyed a string of three consecutive victories against the Indian. But by then, Saina had realised that Okuhara would be ready this time for the surprise rally-extending tactics that the Indian had employed at their clash at the Korea Open in Seoul three weeks ago. Saina, with the help of every mini-stratagem suggested by Kashyap, switched strategies and stayed on the offensive right through the match. The 2017 world champion and eighth seed threw everything at Saina, but at the end, the Indian punched above her weight to register a 17-21, 21-16, 21-12 victory in two minutes under the hour mark.
In the space of just two days, Saina had managed to penetrate the steely defence of two Japanese returning machines. Kashyap admitted that there was no special preparation for Yamaguchi and Okuhara but it was Saina’s improved gameplan that propelled her to achieve gutsy wins.
“It's tough for any player who has achieved so many victories and medals in Superseries events; to understand that you need change and probably a Plan B in your game, think about options to improve. The reason why I say that it's difficult because once you have won in a certain way, you expect to win more by playing that way. Changes and tweaks are required. I know Saina's strengths and weaknesses, also how she likes to play in a certain situation. So, we explain to her accordingly. But it comes down to her will to win,” he says.
If anything, her improved fitness gave a glimpse of the player she was a few years ago. "She's been preparing for a while now, since the time she came back to Hyderabad. I have been helping her individually. She's been learning movements that Gopi sir is trying to teach."
“The effect of losing to a particular player makes you mentally weak. I understand that as a player. So, to go there and win against certain opponents whom you're continuously losing to makes a lot of difference. Obviously, me being part of this circuit, understanding the stadiums, having played a semi-final under the same condition helps a lot. I know what she can do and what she cannot. Things worked against Akane and Okuhara,” adds Kashyap.
I would like to thank the team for the amazing week I had in Denmark open 🇩🇰 ... Happy with result here and ready to fight again next week at the French open . @ArvindDNigam4 @parupallik #siyaduth... also would like to thank Gopi sir and kiran sir (physio) for their efforts..🙏👍 pic.twitter.com/s80bqtV6A5
— Saina Nehwal (@NSaina) October 21, 2018
The semi-final clash against the world junior champion Gregoria Mariska Tunjung seemed a tricky affair before the two stepped on the court, considering how the 19-year-old Indonesian had brushed aside Marin in the first round. Despite the brouhaha around the clash, the match turned out to be a cakewalk for the Indian as she thwarted Gregoria 21-11, 21-12 to enter her second final in Odense.
Saina did have a chance to finally end her 11-game losing streak, after all. After losing the opening game 13-21, Kashyap rushed towards Saina and was loud and clear, ‘You are playing well, be disciplined. Try to push her back after drawing her towards the net. Do this.’
And guess what? Tai committed a series of rare errors to gift Saina enough points to enforce a decider. The Indian ace did extremely well to indulge the Taiwanese in long rallies, forcing the World No 1 to make mistakes that most stroke players end up making. However, the legend of this maverick Tai Tzu Ying continued to sprout as she employed those disguised strokes as if her life was depended on it. Saina ran out of gas, losing the decider 6-21 and the final.
But when the dust settles, Saina can look back at her performance in this tournament and her hard-fought wins against some of the best shuttlers on the circuit with pride. In Odense, Saina was the only active player out of the four women singles shuttlers who made the semi-finals back in 2012. Her performance in this tournament is nothing but an ode to her remarkable longevity and consistency.
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Updated Date: Oct 23, 2018 13:59:46 IST