World Badminton Championships 2017: Saina Nehwal may be away from spotlight, but still packs a punch
While Carolina Marin and He Bingjiao will look to make the most of their opportunities in Tai Tzu Ying's absence, Indian ace Saina Nehwal should find a smart route to the top.
Many believed that she would never grace the court again. It looked bad, her knees were strapped while she entered the arena at the 2016 Rio Olympics to face world number 61 Maria Ulitina of Ukraine. The world number five hobbled and struggled to lift the shuttle as her right knee hampered her on-court movements. At the end of the match, it was the Ukrainian who was seen celebrating her second round win over India's best bet – Saina Nehwal.
The terrible injury had kept her out for a few months. It was in January 2017 when she successfully recovered but never looked confident enough as the injury had restricted her movements and moreover she was beaten on the tramlines at times.
Ever since gaining prominence as one of the most promising badminton stars India has ever produced in 2009, Saina has been fighting against a series of niggles. At such a young age, it was time for her to work her way back to where she belonged. And which she did following her admirable show to claim gold in the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. A win over Wong Mew Choo in three games was enough to place her back in the top as Saina rose to world number two behind the deadly Wang Yihan of China.
The year 2012 proved to be the beginning of the explosive shuttler as Saina successfully defeated world number two Wang Shixian of China and Thailand's Ratchanok Intanon to lift the Swiss and Thailand Open Grand Prix Gold titles respectively in as many months. Not to forget she won her third Indonesia Open Superseries by defeating world number three Li Xuerui, claimed the bronze medal at the London Olympics and again showed her worth at the Denmark Superseries Premier.
However, her journey was yet again marred by injuries in the following year when she failed to express her full potential. After coming back from the 2014 Thomas and Uber Cup, all of 24, she was ready to take a huge decision. The Olympic medallist left Hyderabad and moved to Bengaluru to train under the then national coach Vimal Kumar. It was a strange switch for many, but the move proved to be fruitful. Kumar, a former national champion, gave complete attention and helped her to bring back her on-court charm to the international stage.
A smashing run in 2016, when Saina defended her India Open GPG title and bagged maiden golds at the India and Australia Superseries events, assured her of becoming the first Indian women's player to claim the world number one spot in the BWF rankings in April. This signalled how consistent she was at the time when Chinese domination in the sport was still present. Everyone looked at her success as a run-up to the 2016 Olympics only to see her get busy with an old friend – injuries. Just before the Olympics, Saina found herself in trouble with an inflammation in her right knee. It became worse by the day and was one of the reasons she couldn't make it beyond the second round in Rio.
A surgery, followed with a lengthy rehabilitation period allowed her to step on the court again. Although she courageously returned to the fore at the Premier Badminton League (PBL) at the start of 2017, and other big events, and won the Malaysia Masters GPG, the season has not been sparkling for the 27-year-old shuttler.
At the forthcoming World Badminton Championships in Glasgow, PV Sindhu and Kidambi Srikanth have been tipped to put the stage alight following their impressive show so far this year. Saina, who claimed the only silver for India at the World Championships in 2015, is surprisingly no more in the spotlight.
Seeded 12th, Saina starts her campaign with a bye and might play a lung opener with Sabrina Jacquet. If she passes the second hurdle, she may run to South Korean ace Sung Ji Hyun in the third round. Speaking to Firstpost, Kumar said,"There will be a lot of pressure especially after what she has gone through in the last 18 months. The injury during the Olympic games was a bit unfortunate and but that's sport. But she has come out quite well."
Interestingly, Saina enjoys a 7-2 lead in the overall head-to-head meetings in BWF events over the Korean, having recently defeated Sung in straight games at the Australian Open Superseries. Despite the domination, the Indian ace must be aware of Sung's net shots and deceptive strokes which can prove to be a game-changer if the match is forced into the deciding game.
When asked about why Saina was losing in close encounters earlier this year despite starting brightly, Kumar explained,"Once you are physically good, then you can convert (results). It has got a lot to do with your tactical aspects at that time. That she couldn't put it across properly. So let's see how she fares now in the coming months."
While world number one Tai Tzu-ying has prioritised the World Universiade over the World Championships, shuttlers like He Bingjiao and Carolina Marin will be eager to make the most of the opportunity. Saina may face in-form shuttlers like Bingjiao and Nozomi Okuara/ Marin in the quarter-final and semi-final stages and to overcome those tough hurdles, one of the key elements is to be mentally strong.
The former world number one will find herself in a tough situation again, with a host of obstacles waiting to derail her from the path she is in at the moment. A fit Saina, like a warrior, can deliver the goods to make the court her own again.
The soft-spoken Indian ace was not known for her aggression till five years back and it was chief national coach Pullela Gopichand, who had transformed her into an aggressive player ahead of the Rio Games.
The world number seven Indian will next play Hong Kong's world number 34 Cheung Ngan Yi in the group stage.
Sindhu is one of the favourites for the gold, especially in the absence of defending champion Carolina Marin, who missed the Games due to an injury.