A look at the journeys taken by Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu to book their Olympic tickets
It has been an interesting year for Indian badminton so far and particularly for the Women’s shuttlers. Both Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu have taken different routes in their quest to seal that Olympic spot and both of them of sealed it when the updated rankings were released on the opening week of May.
A closer look at the exploits of both players in 2016 would give us an indication as to how different their journeys, particularly this year, has been to that spot for Rio.
After several disappointments, success finally arrives for Saina
It was the World Championships final of 2015 in Jakarta, involving Saina Nehwal and Carolina Marin. The Indian had earlier in the year lost a high-profile final to the same opponent at the All England Championships in Birmingham and was looking to reverse that result here. However, it wasn;t to be the case as the Spaniard defeated her Indian counterpart in straight games to lift the title for the second year in a row.
That result, in hindsight, was to prove to be a turning point for Saina, in the coming six months. Consecutive second round losses at the Japan Superseries and the Denmark Superseries Premier to Minatsu Mitani of Japan and an opening round exit at the Dubai Superseries Finals meant that she had endured a torrid time overall, resulting in a drop in the World rankings as well.
In all these losses it was evident that the 26-year-old wasn’t playing at top fitness. Her movements, particularly near the net had slowed down and that was proving to be an easy prey for several of her opponents.
The troublesome Achilles tendon, a major cause for her poor performance in the last quarter of 2015, slowed down her progress in 2016 as well and Saina, despite competing in only the Premier Badminton League, returned to proper action only in March at the All England Championships.
To expect her to put in a similar performance like 2015 would have been too harsh but nevertheless, the Indian managed to reach the quarterfinals of the competition, losing to Tzu Ying Tai, who outclassed her in many, if not all aspects.
Looking to get some much needed match practice under her belt after staying out of the game for long, Saina decided to compete at the Grand Prix Gold events and it proved to be a good decision in the end as she reached the semifinals at the Switzerland to gain further confidence.
That both her form and fitness was on the upswing was proved further when she put forth a good showing at both the Malaysian as well as the India Superseries events, reaching the semifinals of both events, but crucially, showing indications that movements had improved considerably.
After a couple of more semifinal exits at the Asian Championships and the Uber Cup and a quarterfinal exit at the Indonesia Open, Saina entered into the Australian Superseries, hoping to end her last competition before beginning preparations for Rio 2016.
For those like me who covered the competition from start to end, the indications that she had attained top fitness were there for all to see. A superb performance, particularly in the second game in the quarterfinal against Ratchanak Intanon was backed by a ‘thrashing’ to China’s Wang Yihan, a match that saw her play very well down the line, meant that after those tough few months early on, she had entered her maiden final of 2016.
Down a game in the finale, against Sun Yu, the Indian showed very good composure and with some excellent precision play, especially at the backcourt, clinched the second game before holding her nerve to win the decider to lift her maiden title.
While Saina may have admitted post-match that a win her wasn't in her sights, deep down the victory would have given her immense confidence and if she can replicate similar play at Rio, then we can definitely hope for a second consecutive Olympic medal.