Korea Open 2018: Saina Nehwal’s show of grit in defeat to Nozomi Okuhara deserves plenty of plaudits

The spirited performance that India’s shuttle queen Saina Nehwal put up against former world champion Nozomi Okuhara in the quarter-finals of the recently-concluded Korea Open World Tour 500 badminton championships must be viewed in the right perspective, in the light of the Japanese ace’s successful defence of her women’s singles title in the $600,000 tournament.

Okuhara, whom many have likened to a very successful marathon runner, wore down American-Chinese Beiwen Zhang by a 21-10, 17-21, 21-16 scoreline, in a 52-minute tossing slugfest, in which she pulled away steadily after trailing narrowly by 10-11 at the changeover point of the decider.

Having done all the hard work earlier, of knocking the breath out of the smooth-striding Zhang with some trademark interminable rallies, the 23-year-old Japanese ace was not unduly troubled in the home stretch. She actually held match-point at 20-14 before the American was able to reduce the margin of defeat by a couple of points.

File image of Indian badminton ace Saina Nehwal. AFP

File image of Indian badminton ace Saina Nehwal. AFP

When one reviews the third-seeded Okuhara’s performance in the five rounds she had to play en route to the title, it can be observed that she was stretched over the full distance only from the quarter-final stage onwards. She had facile victories over Chinese Taipei’s Lee Chia Hsin and Hong Kong’s Yip Pui Yin, before running at the last-eight stage into Typhoon Nehwal, albeit in a different avatar.

Realising that Okuhara would be prepared for her normal low service, short rallies and bodyline smashes pattern, Saina totally overhauled her own strategy, and went in for a high-risk plan. She employed the deep, high service which she usually shuns, stayed ultra-patient in the long rallies, giving the Japanese player a small taste of her own medicine, and relied on the heavy cross-drift in the vast hall of the SK Olympic Handball Stadium to force errors from her adversary.

The strategy was extremely risky because the Japanese is arguably the fittest player on the international circuit, capable of lasting three long, exhausting games without being caught out on the stamina front. She was also in the full bloom of her career, being five years younger than the 28-year-old Saina, who is approaching the eventide of what has been an outstanding stint on the courts.

Saina, after making a successful comeback from what had been a career-threatening knee injury suffered at the 2016 Rio Olympics, had been hovering on the fringes of the top ten Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, occasionally scalping one of the fancied stars, but not with the regularity she did when she had hit the pinnacle of the rankings in May 2016.

Although acknowledged to be one of the hardest working players on the circuit, the Hyderabad-based Haryanvi was still suspect in the fitness stakes in a lengthy encounter, mostly because of her advanced age. Okuhara would not, in her worst nightmare, have thought that Saina would try to test her in the endurance department.

So unexpected were the Indian’s tactics that the normally metronomically accurate Okuhara was forced into errors, especially from the side of the court from which she played the second half of the decider. She disliked being pinned to the forehand baseline, but her efforts to cut short the rally by slicing to Saina’s forehand net corner either ended up in the mesh, or were carried wide by the diabolical cross-drift.

No other player was able to drag Okuhara to the brink of the cliff. Even in the semi-final, the Japanese was more than a step ahead of her top-seeded compatriot, Akane Yamaguchi, whom she beat by a 16-21, 21-17, 21-14 scoreline. Saina actually stood at 20-16, with four match-points in hand, to dethrone the defending champion. And this was done with an unending stream of deep, accurate tosses that pinned her antagonist to the deep forehand baseline corner.

The Indian’s tragic miscalculation at this stage, when her own resources were nearing their nadir, was what cost her the match. Instead of ending the tussle by the short route, she persisted with the strategy that had carried her to that point, not appreciating the fact that Okuhara had decided on a now-or-never counter, employing the smashes that she had kept under wraps for the greater part of the clash.

Okuhara’s progress to 19-20 was the point at which the needle of Saina’s fuel tank pointed inexorably to ‘Empty’. She simply had nothing left with which to wrest that fateful final ace that would have catapulted her into the semi-final. Despite all the rich experience she has garnered over 14 years as a badminton international, she was unable to identify the exact point at which to switch strategies and go for broke.

Nevertheless, although her reconstructed knee is now holding up under duress, age is not on her side, and the indomitable Saina deserves a salute for her magnificent performance against Okuhara, which gave hope to her vast legion of supporters that she still has something to offer them, even after she enters a new phase of her life as Mrs Parupalli Kashyap.

Even as Okuhara reveled in her successful defence of the Korea Open title she had won last year, and pronounced herself ready once again to puncture the hegemony of Spain’s resurgent three-time world champion Carolina Marin and Taiwan’s Tai Tzu Ying, a 28-year-old Chinese Taipei player made up for the (hopefully temporary) decline of a compatriot.

Fourth seeded Chou Tien Chen, who had been beaten at the semi-final stage of last week’s China Open by the eventual winner, Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, took another Indonesian, Tommy Sugiarto, in stride, by a 21-13, 21-16 margin while claiming top honours in Seoul. Chou is in the form of his life, and is busy vying for a share of the spotlight that has moved away in recent weeks from women’s long-reigning World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying.

Tai has suffered three defeats in the past month, almost more than she suffered during the entire two preceding years, when she won five Superseries titles each in 2016 and 2017, and four more in the first half of 2018. She has been the world’s top female player for nearly two years since 1st December 2016, barring four weeks when she was No 2, and one odd week when she slid down to No 5.

A recent crisis of confidence has caused her to lose to three players from amongst the new Chinese crop – He Bingjiao, Gao Fangjie and Chen Xiaoxin – that has come up after the exit of the three legendary Wang’s – Xin, Yihan and Shixian; the guarded return of Li Xuerui after the crippling knee injury she had suffered at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and the premature retirement of Sun Yu.

Tai is far too good a player to let these three losses worry her over-much; and she is bound to return to the circuit refreshed after her recent week-long break of sitting out the Korea Open. In all likelihood, we will see her at the $500,000 prize money Chinese Taipei Open, being held in her hometown from 2 October.

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Updated Date: Oct 01, 2018 15:05:46 IST

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