Malaysia Masters: Saina Nehwal’s commanding semifinal win shows she is getting back to her best

Indomitable will. Fierce competitive spirit. Unrelenting hard work. Call it what you will, Saina Nehwal’s rehabilitation from a horrible, career-threatening knee injury gathered further momentum at the Malaysia Masters Grand Prix Gold tournament, when she coasted into the women’s singles final with a brilliant 21-13, 21-10 win over Hong Kong’s No 5 seed, Yip Pui Yin, in a shade over the half-hour mark.

 Malaysia Masters: Saina Nehwal’s commanding semifinal win shows she is getting back to her best

Saina Nehwal in action during the Malaysia Masters. AP

Exhibiting a trace of tentativeness in her lunging movements to the net at the start of the contest, the 26-year-old gradually settled into a rhythm, and then simply ran away with the match. In terms of duration, the clash lasted about as long as most encounters in the Premier Badminton League, wherein the truncated, TV-friendly 11-point scoring format was employed, and where the average match was done and dusted in about half an hour’s time.

The result took the record of Saina’s hegemony over Yip to 7-2, with the Indian having won their last half-dozen encounters, all in straight games, and all for the loss of minimal points. It was when the two had first met a decade ago, shortly after Saina made her international debut at the age of 16, that the Hong Kong girl, then 19, had scored a 21-19, 21-18 win at the 2007 Swiss Open.

Yip’s only other win over the Indian had come in the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou when she had just got her nose over the line, ahead of her younger rival at 21-19 in the deciding game. Thereafter, on the six occasions that they crossed swords in the subsequent four years, it was always Saina who strode away to majestic triumphs, the most recent being a comprehensive 21-9, 21-10 rout in the 2014 Uber Cup team championships.

There was little initial indication of the similar hatchet job that Saina turned their Malaysia Masters semi-final eventually into, when both players slugged it out on fairly even terms in the first half of the opening game.

Ever since she returned to the international circuit at the China Open last November, Saina has metamorphosed into a slow starter, taking her own sweet time to sink her teeth into a match.

In fact, it was the 29-year-old circuit veteran who dominated the early exchanges, recovering from a slightly nervous 1-4 start to streak ahead to 7-4 and then 9-6, as her top-seeded opponent struggled to put her full weight on the right knee while getting to the net to retrieve Yip’s sharp drops.

Gradually, though, Saina began moving on the court with greater smoothness, and started reaching Yip’s drops increasingly earlier, thereby mounting pressure on her Hong Kong-based opponent to read her strokes – either the net dribble or the lofted clear, or even the adroit, if rare, crosscourt net drop reminiscent of Taiwan’s Tai Tzu Ying. Any slightly short return was punished with a body smash, Saina’s signature stroke.

From 11-12 in that opening stanza, Saina showed the noisy Sarawak crowd that there was only one player in the match. So comprehensive was her dominance, that she won 16 of the next 17 points – a feat almost unheard of in a format which awards a point for every rally played. The Indian streaked to a 21-13 win, and then opened out a handy 6-0 lead before the shell-shocked Yip could even catch her breath.

One particular rally, which netted Saina the fifth point in the second game, was indicative of the improvement in her movement on the court, and the confidence she had over the joint that had caused her so much distress in recent months.

From a defensive position on the forehand baseline corner, when the shuttle was just over her shoulder, the Indian put her full weight on the recently-recovered knee, and sliced a fast crosscourt drop to Yip’s forehand net corner. When her opponent managed to loft the shuttle flat and deep to her backhand baseline, the Indian performed a swift three-step sideways dance to catch the bird with her forehand and blast an overhead crosscourt smash that a back-pedalling Yip just could not reach.

Any good player will reveal just how difficult is this combination of shots. Even allowing that a player is quick enough to take the flat clear with the forehand, rather than a defensive backhand, the logical counter-stroke would be a down-the-line shot, be it a drop, smash or toss. The strength needed in the knees to get the body’s balance right, even as the player twists her entire body to obtain the torque for executing a crosscourt overhead smash, is immense.

That one stroke showed just how far the doughty Saina has come, along the road to recovery, since being forced to go under the knife last September, at the end of her unhappy Rio Olympic medal quest, when she went down to unheralded Ukrainian Marija Ulitina. Saina, as a consistent top-tenner over the past five years, had been in a different league from Ulitina, and the manner of her loss was indicative of the trouble she was having with that gammy right knee.

Indeed, the orthopedic surgeon who operated on the knee had expressed amazement that the Indian had even taken to the court with the knee being in the condition it was. And probably, had it not been the Olympics, which comes round just once in four years, and is the competition which every elite athlete wants to win, Saina would probably have given the event a miss.

The fact that she played in a Grand Prix Gold tournament, which is really a second-tier competition that she would not ordinarily have entered, showed Saina’s determination to work her way back to full fitness methodically. It is so much easier to win matches against opposition that it not in the elite BWF list. Saina played well within herself against Yip Pui Yin, and still possessed enough firepower to win the match at a canter, and make a final assault on the Malaysia Masters title.

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Updated Date: Jan 22, 2017 10:13:59 IST