There is a parallel, albeit a limited one, to the career paths of India's former world number one badminton player, Saina Nehwal, and one of the world's all-time great tennis players, Andre Agassi, winner of eight Grand Slam titles as well as the 1996 Olympic gold medal, and one of only a handful of players to achieve a career Grand Slam of the Australian, French, Wimbledon and US Open titles.
After hitting the pinnacle of his career in 1995, when he grabbed the world number one ranking at the expense of his greatest rival, fellow-American Pete Sampras, Agassi lost motivation in 1997, and faced a number of personal problems, including drug abuse, to sink to an abysmal ranking of 141 on the Association of Tennis Professionals' (ATP) ladder.
Rediscovering his mojo the following year, the pigeon-toed Agassi, known as 'the Punisher' and acknowledged to be one of the greatest returners in the game, returned to the world number ranking in 1999, and went on to enjoy the most successful run of his career over the next four years.
But, to get to the top again, this tennis great had to play for several months on the lowly Challenger circuit, so as to garner enough ATP points to find a place in the elite tournaments. On the unforgiving ATP circuit, spots in the main draws are doled out strictly according to order of ranking. Those outside the cut-off point have to play in qualifying rounds to win a berth in the main draw.
Saina's current predicament has some points of similarity to what Agassi had to go through in 1998-99, though it is only right that the differences be looked at, first. The Haryana-born, Hyderabad-domiciled, 26-year-old shuttle queen has, unlike Agassi, never been short of motivation to be Numero Uno in her sport, and would never have gone the drugs way, even by way of experimentation.
Again, her Badminton World Federation (BWF) ranking has never dropped outside the top ten since 2009 – until the week starting 24 November, 2016, when she fell to number 11, mainly because of her enforced 75-day absence from the circuit in the aftermath of her knee surgery.
That bespeaks a remarkable saga of excellence and consistency that would have few parallels in any sport. Perhaps there would be some similarity to the case of Roger Federer, whom many consider to be the greatest tennis player ever, who has a virtually unbeatable record of 23 consecutive semi-final appearances in Grand Slam tournaments, who spent 237 consecutive weeks ranked number one in the world, but who sports a current world ranking of 17.
By virtue of her title-winning performance in the Malaysia Masters Grand Prix Gold tournament over the last weekend, Saina has already managed to pull her ranking up one notch to number ten. But to do that, she had to – like Agassi – go down to a level where the top prize was US$ 9,000, rather than the winner's purse of US$ 25,000 upwards offered in the Super Series and Super Series Premier tournaments.
Saina did not really have to go down to the Grand Prix Gold level. Even at the lowest point of number 11, her ranking assured her of a direct entry into the main draw of any Super Series tournament in the world, bar the year-ending BWF grand finals, where only eight berths are available, and which have to be earned on the strength of performances in Super Series tournaments throughout the year.
Thus, one admires the thinking of her coach, former national champion Vimal Kumar, who enrolled her in the Malaysia Masters event in obscure Sarawak, so that she could work her way gradually back to playing in the elite events against the best in the game. The ploy allowed Saina to play well within herself, without extending over-much – as she would have had to do in Super Series events against the likes of Carolina Marin, Tai Tzu Ying, Sung Ji Hyun, Sun Yu, Ratchanok Intanon, et al.
It was no surprise to see the top-seeded Saina take the title with straight-games wins in the final two rounds against the likes of Hong Kong's Yip Pui Yin and Thailand's Pornpawee Chochuwong. But while she sailed through with minimal fuss against the former, she was given a sterling workout in the final by the effervescent Thai, who celebrated her 19th birthday on the day of the final.
The 22-20, 22-20 triumph against Pornpawee only revealed that Saina had to harness all her rich experience of a decade in international competition to play the key points solidly, and stick her nose out at the finishing-line. She did not have to go all out at any stage of the tournament, but did get in a decent gallop.
In some of the rallies against Yip and Pornpawee, Saina was seen to put full weight on the recently repaired right knee without hesitation, and feeling no ill-effects. However, it was clear that she was tentative on the offending limb at the start of both matches, and, by her own admission, took time to warm up to her task. She cannot afford this luxury against the top notchers, who would probably run away with the first game when given such a gilt-edged opportunity.
"It is a good win for her confidence, although the level of competition at the Malaysia Masters was admittedly lower than in the Super Series tournaments," said Vimal Kumar, who operates as chief coach at the Bangalore-based Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy.
Vimal mentioned that the players who participate at Grand Prix Gold events like the Malaysia Masters are usually the younger and upcoming lot who have nothing to lose against the established stars, and so, come out with all guns blazing. This tends to exert extra pressure on the higher ranked players, who are protecting their ranking and reputation, and hence need to be extra cautious at such events.
"You saw how Pornpawee, who is ranked 67th in the world, beat Cheung Ngan Yi, who is ranked 19th, and was seeded second behind Saina at the Malaysia Masters," Vimal said. "We had witnessed Cheung in action during the Premier Badminton League, a few days ago, and had seen what a good player she was. She had beaten Saina at the Hong Kong Open last November; and so, since Pornpawee beat Cheung in the semi-final, the result put additional pressure on Saina in the final.
"If you assess Saina's positives and negatives, her foot speed has improved a lot since the initial days of returning to the circuit after rehabilitation from knee surgery. However, her fitness is still a little suspect, and she tends to get out of breath more than during the days before her injury.
"Some weight gain during the period after surgery is but natural, and she is working at losing this extra weight. Our priority now is to improve her strength and endurance, so that she can be competitive in the longer matches against the top players. She has sufficient time to do this, for her next international outing will be the All-England Championships after six weeks – in early-March."
Saina, it will be recalled, had been down in the dumps in the immediate aftermath of her knee surgery, and had publicly declared that she feared her badminton career was over. But, like her long-time (before Vimal Kumar) coach, Pullela Gopichand, she has – through dint of sheer hard work - made a near-miraculous recovery in double-quick time from an injury that did threaten to cut short her career.
Gopichand had suffered a horrible knee injury during the National Games in Pune in 1994, when his doubles partner had collided heavily with him and landed on him with his full weight on the knee, which buckled and got badly twisted. To ensure that his team did not have to default the tie, he continued playing even though he could barely move, and injured himself further.
Following complex surgery, the doughty Gopichand spent hundreds of lonely hours in the gymnasium, toughening the quadriceps and calf muscles that would give him the ability to execute his renowned jump smashes. And, seven years later, he ascended to the pinnacle of the sport by winning the 2001 All-England title.
The injury to Saina's knee is unlikely to have been as serious as Gopichand's was, so she has even more inspiration to gain from her former coach. She has stood on the second step of the winners' podium at the All-England, having ended runner-up to Carolina Marin in the 2015 edition. Considering the systematic manner in which she and her coach have plotted her return from knee surgery, there is no reason to believe that Saina cannot take that one extra step to the top rung of the rostrum at Birmingham.
Updated Date: Jan 23, 2017 15:07:51 IST