PBL 2017: Saina Nehwal’s marked improvement helps Awadhe Warriors beat Bengaluru Blasters

Bengaluru: Before the onset of the second edition of the Premier Badminton League (PBL), there had been widespread speculation as to whether Saina Nehwal, just returning to international badminton after knee surgery in September, would take the risk of playing in a tournament that is not anywhere near as serious as the BWF Super Series and Grand Prix circuit.

Saina’s coach Vimal Kumar had set all speculation at rest by insisting that his ward would take part in the competition as it would not be overly stressful, and would, in fact, help her improve her fitness, speed and readiness for the rigours of international competition in the 2017 season.

 PBL 2017: Saina Nehwal’s marked improvement helps Awadhe Warriors beat Bengaluru Blasters

Saina Nehwal in action in the PWL. Image courtesy: pbl-india.com

That the former Indian national champion had got his reading of the situation spot on could be seen on Monday night, when Saina extracted sweet revenge for her defeat in the November 2016 Hong Kong Open at the hands of the Hong Kong China ace, Cheung Ngan Yi, with a gritty, come-from-behind 9-11, 11-5, 11-5 triumph.

Playing her women’s singles match as the crucial trump for Awadhe Warriors, the 26-year-old Indian shuttle queen overcame a slow start, to hit her straps from the onset of the second game, and emerge victorious in most of the lengthy rallies that she engaged Cheung in. The two points she delivered were instrumental in her team’s narrow 4-3 victory over Bengaluru Blasters, and ensured their qualification for the semi-finals.

So well did Saina play that the crowds at the Koramangala Indoor Stadium in Bengaluru were torn between cheering for their team’s representative and for the girl who has become a ‘local’ here after switching from training at the Hyderabad-based Pullela Gopichand Academy to the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy, a couple of years ago.

“I feel I am improving match by match, and am very happy that I have been able to win three of my four matches in this tournament against some of the top players in the world, so soon after recovering from knee surgery,” she said later, in a courtside interview. “There is a little bit of stiffness and pain in the knee at the start of the match, but it disappears when I get warmed up, and I can play freely.”

Indeed, Saina’s showing against Cheung helped her notch up her third triumph in four outings in the ongoing PBL, the sole blemish in her record coming from her opening outing against world and Olympic champion Carolina Marin in the course of the Hyderabad Hunters-Awadhe Warriors clash in Hyderabad, on the second day of the New Year.

It leaves her awaiting a mouth-watering clash against her former Hyderabad stable-mate, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, when Awadhe take on Chennai Smashers in the final pool match on Wednesday. The two fellow-countrywomen have only had one previous career meeting – in the same team tournament in 2013, when it was known as the Indian Badminton League.

Saina had then emerged victorious by a comfortable margin, and the two women had shown their dislike of each other with a perfunctory handshake at the net while studiously looking away from each other. The luck of the draw in various international tournaments has prevented a re-match thus far, but it must be said that Sindhu is a much improved player since that encounter.

Though repeatedly quizzed on her thoughts on what promises to be a grudge match, Saina adroitly played down the clash with Sindhu, saying, “The match against Sindhu does not matter; its result will not make any difference to my team’s position. I am just looking forward to playing in the semi-finals.”

She, however, took the pressure off herself by adding, “The courts and shuttles in India are very fast, and definitely favour the attacking players more. Sindhu is a very aggressive player, so she has an advantage playing here (in Bengaluru). I am much happier playing outside the country, where the pressure of expectations is much less than it is while playing in front of your home crowds.”

The importance of Saina’s trump match against Cheung tended to cast a veil over an equally impressive performance from Kidambi Srikanth, who lowered the colours of Denmark’s world number three and Olympic bronze medallist, Viktor Axelsen, by a 11-9, 11-9 scoreline, in the third match of the tie, at a stage when the two teams were tied at a point apiece.

The two had met thrice earlier, all the clashes taking place in 2015; and the Indian held a 2-1 lead in their head-to-head. It was thus clear that the gangling Dane was uncomfortable playing against the fast, aggressive Srikanth, whose tactic of rushing the net behind his steep, powerful smashes, and finishing off even the slightest of weak returns, works very well against all but the most doughty of defenders.

The leading Indian male player that he is, Srikanth (whose ranking has dipped to number 15, though he has touched a high point of number three in June-July 2015) boasts three victories in this tournament in four outings, including wins over the two top Danish stars, Jan O Jorgensen and Axelsen, who are ranked second and third on the BWF ladder, and who had helped their country to the Thomas Cup team title last year.

Srikanth’s only blip has come against compatriot Ajay Jayaram, when he failed to convert a brace of match-points in the second game, and showed traces of fatigue in the decider. That was only natural, since the Awadhe player is well short of match fitness, having only just returned to competition after sitting out for two months with a stress fracture in his right foot.

The other match worth commenting upon was the tie-opener, in which Bengaluru fielded Saurabh Verma against the speed demon Vincent Wong Wing Ki. All at sea against the lightning-fast moves of the Hong Kong player, Saurabh bided his time and slowed the game down, giving Vincent few midcourt opportunities to bring his dreaded smashes into play.

From a deficit of 5-10, the former Indian national champion saved six game-points before wresting the opening game, literally from the lion’s mouth, at 13-11. Despite his lack of power, Saurabh displays beautifully smooth movements on the court, and employs fine shuttle skills to stamp his authority on a match. The loss of the opening game broke Vincent’s mental resistance, and the Indian induced him to capitulate in the second without much resistance.

In the mixed doubles, although the untried combination of Ko Sung Hyun and Sikki Reddy lacked the finer points of combination, to go down in three games to Thailand’s world number 12 duo of Bodin Issara and Savitree Amitrapai, the 23-year-old Indian left-hander showed sufficient prowess to suggest that she will be a force to reckon with in the paired events.

Sikki’s excellent control at the net and swift movements on the court suggest that it is time India paired her with Ashwini Ponnappa in the women’s doubles. Jwala Gutta, who has undoubtedly been a magnificent doubles player in her heyday, currently appears well past her prime, and positively lacks the speed and fitness to make an effective combination with the hard-working Ashwini.

It would make eminent good sense for national doubles coach Tan Kim Her to let Ashwini get used to playing regularly with Sikki Reddy, so that the two are honed for quality international competition when the Uber Cup women’s team championships come round in a few months’ time.

Scores: Awadhe Warriors beat Bengaluru Blasters 4-3 (Vincent Wong Wing Ki lost to Saurabh Verma 11-13, 7-11; Bodin Issara and Savitree Amitrapai beat Ko Sung Hyun and N. Sikki Reddy 11-9, 4-11, 11-5; Kidambi Srikanth beat Viktor Axelsen 11-9, 11-9; Saina Nehwal (trump) beat Cheung Ngan Yi 9-11, 11-5, 11-5; Markis Kido and Goh V. Shem lost to Ko Sung Hyun and Yoo Yeon Seong (trump) 11-6, 9-11, 6-11)

Updated Date: Jan 10, 2017 11:24:13 IST