National Championships: Decoding Saina Nehwal's continued dominance over PV Sindhu

The queen-in-waiting needs to hold her horses for a little longer, since the current incumbent is far from ready to relinquish her throne. PV Sindhu, long hailed as the logical successor to Saina Nehwal’s mantle of the pre-eminent female Indian shuttler, was put in her place in no uncertain fashion at the recently concluded Nationals in Guwahati.

National Championships: Decoding Saina Nehwals continued dominance over PV Sindhu

File photo of PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal. PTI

In a repeat of the previous edition’s final in Nagpur in November 2017, the 2012 Olympics bronze medallist and 2015 World Championship silver medallist Saina, currently ranked ninth in the world, showed her higher-ranked compatriot that she remained streets ahead of the 2016 Olympics silver medallist and two-time (2017 and 2018) World Championship runner-up, by notching up a facile 21-18, 21-15 win to bag her fourth national crown.

Saina, who will turn 29 next month, started slowly but did not take too long to find her groove. She played a consistently aggressive game, using her powerful smashes to telling effect against a player who was distinctly uncomfortable when defending. She employed sideline smashes as often as she did her famous body smash, and interspersed the hard strokes with delicate drop shots that had Sindhu stretching and bending.

The senior shuttler tore deep rents in her 23-year-old rival’s defence, even as she got back most of Sindhu’s power-packed smashes with elan, blocking the returns effectively and not allowing her antagonist the opportunity of following her smashes into the net. When the willowy Sindhu switched strategies and tried prolonging the rallies in the second stanza, Saina showed off her optimal fitness levels by holding her own in the lengthy exchanges.

“I entered the court with a specific mindset of playing attacking badminton, and I was able to implement my strategy nicely,” said Saina, after her 31-minute triumph. “I was helped by some key courtside inputs given to me by my husband (Parupalli Kashyap). Sindhu put up a brave fight, but I thought I played well. Ahead of the All England Championship, this result is a big morale booster. I am happy with the way I am playing right now.”

How has Saina managed to achieve this level of ascendancy over her younger fellow-countrywoman, who won the 2018 season-ending World Tour finals in Guangzhou, beating virtually all the best players in the world, and who sat as high as No 2 in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings until recently, but has since slipped down to the sixth rung?

A prime indicator of Saina’s superiority is her head-to-head record against Sindhu. If one disregards her defeat at Sindhu’s hands in the gimmicky Premier Badminton League (which is played to a best of three games of 15 points, with no extension permitted at 14-all, and whose results are not considered by the Badminton World Federation while compiling the players’ head-to-head records), then the Haryana-born player carries a comfortable lead over the Hyderabadi in their career meetings.

The official statistics show Saina leading 3-1, after getting the better of her bitter rival in straight games at the Indonesia Masters and Commonwealth Games, both in 2018. Saina had won their first-ever meeting five years ago, at the 2014 India Grand Prix Gold, but then lost in the 2017 India Open by a 16-21, 20-22 scoreline.

The reigning national champion’s triumphs at the last two Indian Nationals, both at the expense of Sindhu in the finals at Nagpur and Guwahati, makes it five wins for her out of six clashes in the classical 21x3 format. That is an imposing record, indeed!

The absence of warmth in their relationship was apparent to everyone earlier when they would barely touch hands at the net at the end of one of their encounters, refusing to look each other in the eye or exchange any pleasantries.

Moreover, Sindhu and Saina have been training at separate PGBA centres in Hyderabad after the latter's move back from Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA).

Even the best of players, who dominate every other player in the world, have that one nemesis player whom they find difficult to beat. The world’s most dominant female player over the past two years, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, has taken everyone in stride except Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon, against whom she still has a losing 10-13 career record, including defeats in their most recent two encounters.

It must also be said that, within her limitations, Saina reads the game much better than Sindhu does. At the top level, all the players possess the full arsenal of strokes needed in badminton; and it all boils down to who is able to employ those strokes better in the face of the opponent’s perceived weaknesses. Saina is susceptible to deception, and has a poor record against Tai Tzu Ying (whose strokeplay she finds “maddening”), but Sindhu does not possess that kind of artistry, and therefore finds it difficult to breach Saina’s citadel.

Sindhu is undoubtedly more talented than Saina – who herself has freely admitted on a number of occasions that she is a ‘made’ player, rather than natural talent – but the latter’s strong temperament and never-say-die spirit have proved to be major thorns in the Hyderabadi’s effort to beat her compatriot.

For the foreseeable future, until Saina decides she has had enough, and is ready to hang up her racket, Sindhu will have to continue to operate in the badminton queen’s shadow, and hunt for new ways and means to lower the colours of the player who is solely credited with the renaissance of badminton in India.

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Updated Date: Feb 19, 2019 16:44:06 IST

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