From a graceful, stylish player to one who has proved her physical toughness under pressure, Sayali Gokhale‘s transformation is complete. The Pune girl showed aspects of a game that no one associated with her, as she won the National Championships for the second time, beating title favourite PV Sindhu in the final last week.
Like all naturally gifted strokeplayers, Sayali was reckoned have deficiencies in the physical department, especially after Saina Nehwal redefined the meaning of fitness in Indian women’s badminton. But over the last year, the Tata Padukone Academy trainee has been working diligently at improving her strength and stamina under the guidance of Deckline Leitao, Performance Enhancement Specialist at the Academy. The results are showing. Each of the last three matches at the Nationals went over an hour, but Sayali still had enough left to close out the final against PV Sindhu.
The quarterfinal at the Nationals saw her overcome the aggressive PC Thulasi 23-21 21-19, while the semifinal was a long encounter against Tanvi Lad that went into three games. The final was even longer, an hour and 15 minutes against an in-form PV Sindhu, but Sayali managed to thwart the big-hitting teen from Hyderabad.
“I must thank Deckline,” says Sayali. “I’m at my fittest-ever. I was able to last in the long rallies, and recover immediately. Vimal (Kumar) sir too helped me in training.”
Deckline himself credits her development to her attitude. “She does everything I instruct her to, and she doesn’t ask too many questions,” he says. “If I tell her to do something, I know it will be done. She looked so weak earlier, but now you can see the change even in the way she walks. She’s much more confident because of her physical ability.”
Sayali, who has won the Nationals once before — in 2009 — went in without thought of winning the title. After all, Sindhu was the overwhelming favourite as she had beaten the recent Olympic champion, Li Xuerui, at the China Masters last month. “I didn’t think about winning or losing,” says Sayali. “Winning wasn’t on my mind. But after I won the quarters against Thulasi, I got confident. It was a good match, and went over an hour. At 11-11 in the third game, I won two-three points at a stretch, and that gave me a lot of confidence.”
The transformation is not so much in her strokes as in her approach to the game. Her increased strength and fitness mean she is able to dictate the pace, unlike in earlier times when she was a more reactive kind of player. “People used to look at me as a defensive player,” she says. “But it was different this time. I practised attacking more in the practice sessions, and that’s what I did at the nationals too.”
Sayali’s performance here should force administrators to invest in more women’s singles players. Saina and Sindhu are already among the game’s elite players, but the others have been relinquished to the shadows. There has to be a concrete plan not just for up-and-coming youngsters, but also experienced players who are yet capable of performing internationally. Players like Sayali get limited opportunities to prove themselves, and it is to her credit that she has grabbed this opportunity to make a statement that she is among the best in the country. “It’s time we looked at the bigger picture,” she says. “We need to look at four-five women’s singles players and make them on par. We all have the capability.”
Sayali is headed to Sweden next, where she will play with Toby Badminton Club in the elite league.