Denmark Open 2018: Saina Nehwal's best efforts not good enough to knock Tai Tzu Ying off her perch as world's best

What do you say about a 24-year-old girl from Kaohsiung who is being hailed as one of the greatest badminton players of all time?

World No 1 Tai Tzu Ying celebrates her victory over Saina Nehwal in the final. AFP

World No 1 Tai Tzu Ying celebrates her victory over Saina Nehwal in the final. AFP

That she has the most eyeful and deceptive arsenal of strokes which you would be at the receiving end of, if you were on the opposite side of the court?

That she has, without a doubt, the game's best backhand that repeatedly gets her out of sticky situations, and even ends up creating unexpected openings for her to finish off the rally?

That she has the ability to speed up, and slow down, the game at will, to keep her opponents constantly off-balance?

That she can softly caress a drop shot that floats gently over the net, employing the same wrist action that she does for a deep, flat toss?

That she possesses the work ethic to ensure the physical fitness and flexibility that back up her amazing repertoire of strokes?

That she plays entire matches with the ghost of a smile on her lips, as if she is thoroughly enjoying herself, and is almost blissfully unaware of the mayhem and stress she is causing her poor rival?

Taiwan's long-reigning World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying, provided a mind-numbing demonstration of her awesome talent when she withstood everything that an inspired Saina Nehwal threw at her, and still ended up a 21-13, 13-21, 21-6 victor in an absorbing 52-minute women's singles final of the Denmark Open World Tour Super 750 badminton championships at the Odense Sports Park on Sunday.

Considering the total rout that the scores of the decider seemed to represent, it might seem a little churlish of the Indian badminton fan to mention that Tai could have done without the help of the chair umpire in that particular game. With the scores tied at 2-2, and the on-court hostilities beginning to rise to a crescendo, the umpire gave Saina a warning for the apparently unacceptable decibel levels of her screams of self-encouragement.

That did it! Something appeared to break in the fully wound-up 28-year-old Indian who had, until that moment, been spilling her guts on the court and leaving no stone unturned in an attempt to counter the wiles of the top seed, four years her junior. The fight seemed to go out of her like air from a collapsing balloon, and she was a spent force for the residual part of the match. She was leg-weary, yes; but it was as if the grit and mutinous drive to show her own true worth has gone from her being.

It had not been possible, at the time of writing, to confirm that the warning given to Saina was for screaming "Come on!" to herself in a voice that possibly shook the rafters. But if it was, the chair umpire needed to be officiating in a match in which the three-time reigning world champion and 2016 Olympic gold medallist, Carolina Marin of Spain, was involved. If Marin has never been pulled up for her openly intimidating vocal callisthenics, then certainly Saina Nehwal should not have been.

Other than that, two intertwined facts stood out in front of those who were privileged to watch this opening match of the 2018 Denmark Open finals, between two women who had won the title earlier - Tai in 2016, and Saina as far back as in 2012.

One fact was that the Taiwanese ace was undoubtedly the superior player of the two, and richly deserved to win against the Indian for the eleventh consecutive time, taking the score of their career head-to-head meetings to 13-5 in her own favour. In other words, though trailing 2-5 against Saina at the end of the March 2013 Swiss Open, Tai has not lost a single match to the Indian thereafter, even winning the last six encounters before this one, in straight games.

The second fact was that Saina played a magnificent match, better than she has at any time since she contracted that horrible knee injury at the 2016 Rio Olympics, which almost ruined her career. For a player who, by her own admission, has limited talent and who has to work twice as hard as anyone else to get to a certain level, the veteran Indian was impeccable in the departments of court coverage, defence, choice of stroke in a particular situation, and ability to give as good as she got.

One was moved to recall the remark of American Andy Roddick, after he lost the 2009 Wimbledon final to Roger Federer at 14-16 in the fifth and final set, doing everything that he possibly could have to break the impregnable Federer serve, and not succeeding: "I threw everything at him but the kitchen sink!" It was the same with Saina - she tried every trick from her vast reservoir of experience, but could only make a dent in the Tai wall in the second game, which she dominated all through.

In fact, Saina played well in both the first and second games, and was repeatedly encouraged, during the breathers in mid-game and between games, by her fiancé, Parupalli Kashyap, who has stood in as her courtside coach for the entire duration of the tournament: "Don't worry; you are playing well. Just maintain discipline, and try to keep the shuttle out of her reach, and away from the net."

It can thus be deduced just how much the 13-21 loss of the first game must have taken out of the Indian, and how much harder she needed to work in the second stanza to try and restore parity. Make no mistake, Saina was at her belligerent best in the second game, but was yet hard put to it to ensure its capture. She could not afford a single lapse in concentration, for her Taiwanese rival was perfectly capable of making up the leeway, and snatching that game.

Nevertheless, it was apparent from the start of the decider that Saina's staying powers were going to be severely tested, for Tai upped the pace from the very outset and led her antagonist a merry dance all over the court. Saina struggled to match the torrid pace, but still might have summoned up strength from her deepest recesses – had not the chair umpire pricked her resistance with that ill-timed warning.

So Tai recaptured the title she had bagged at Odense, two years ago, and claimed a cheque of $54,250 as confirmation of her pre-eminent status in the world of badminton, even as Saina had to rest content with the runner-up prize of $26,350, in this premier $775,000 tournament. It was a result that gave the fans of both players something to cherish - that Tai is moving well on the path to greatness, while Saina remains an inspiration for a nation of 1.25 billion people.


Updated Date: Oct 21, 2018 21:03 PM

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