In the list of her numerous titles, it’s likely that the Indonesia Open 2012 will be Saina Nehwal’s most cherished one.
Sure, there are other titles, such as the Commonwealth Games gold in front of a adulatory home crowd; the India Open win at Chennai, and the Indonesia Open of 2009, her first Superseries title. Each must have been memorable and seemed enormously significant at the time. But considering her career thus far, and the state she was in, there can be little doubt that last week’s title might be the most important of them all.
The Indonesia Open was significant for several reasons: one, it was her first Superseries title in over a year; two: she beat a player who is the ace in China’s pack and on a 30-match unbeaten streak since January; and three, she gutsed it out through the tournament, in the face of daunting odds. During last week, one got to see the multiple shades of Saina’s winning ability: her extreme physical endurance in that one-and-a-half hour marathon quarterfinal; her focus in not letting things slip after Shixian had saved two match points in the second game, and her willingness to slug it out in the final after she was outplayed in the first game. All of this required great stability under pressure, presence of mind, physical strength, and the courage to execute specific strokes at certain moments.
One just had to see the tears at the end of a failed India Open campaign this year to realize what the Superseries win would mean to her. Just after her challenge against Korean Bae Youn Joo had melted in quick time in the second round, Saina appeared sullen and teary-eyed at the press conference. The press is used to seeing champions lose, and expect them to brush it off by mumbling a few words, but Saina just couldn’t speak. She was choked for words as she said: “I’m sorry”, and returned. Even the battle-hardened press felt a tinge of pity for this girl, who at 22 was shouldering the expectations of a nation.
After a glorious 2010, when she won more Superseries titles than any other player, besides the Commonwealth gold, 2011 was a relatively lean season. She reached the Indonesian Open final, held match point against world No.1 Wang Yihan, but couldn’t close it out. That seemed to affect her through the remainder of the year and she had some early losses to players ranked below her.
The run of poor form continued through to mid-March. Eventually, at the Swiss Open, she broke the sequence of losses, posting a victory over world No.2 Wang Shixian in the final. It was a creditable win – not quite Superseries level – but considering that she’d beaten Shixian, it meant she was back to her winning ways.
The early loss at the India Open did jolt that momentum a bit, and when she arrived in Thailand, she was admittedly nervous. The nervousness showed as she struggled through the first round against a relative lightweight. The one player who could’ve troubled her was China’s Li Han, who has been climbing steadily up the ranks, but Saina outclassed her. In the final, she was a comfortable winner over Ratchanok Intanon, the Thai girl who is one of the bright prospects of world badminton.
And then, to recover physically in time and to mount a successful campaign at a Superseries the very next week, speaks of a player who is in prime physical and mental shape.
What this will do for Indian badminton is anyone’s guess. Saina’s performances have convinced enthusiastic youngsters that success against the world’s best is no illusion. Just a week before Saina’s Thailand Open win, K Srikanth, also a trainee at Gopichand’s academy, beat the reigning world junior champion in the final of the Maldives International Challenge. Indian badminton is heading for exciting times, and Saina is at the forefront of it all.