Four semi-final losses, two quarter-final defeats and zero finale appearances. This is a terse summary of Saina Nehwal’s campaign in 2016. With the Rio Olympics just over a month away, India’s brightest medal hope is struggling in the penultimate stages of Superseries Events. Her performance, that should have ideally reached a peak by now, has been prone to inconsistencies and controlled by familiar foes.
After a spate of glowing accomplishments in 2015 that included reaching No.1 in the World, Saina’s season ended with a right leg injury. Her run in 2016 has been a stark contrast in comparison to the one last year. Currently ranked No.8 in the World, Saina’s slide in rankings has been fast and furious.
The right leg has been the Achilles Heel
For any athlete, the road to recovery, post injury, is an arduous one. Apart from dealing with physical limitations, they have to temper their aspirations and calibrate expectations each day.
Despite the rest and recuperation in the off-season, the Achilles tendon injury in Saina’s right leg reared its ugly head at the start of this season. After pulling out of the Syed Modi Grand Prix Gold Badminton Championships in January Saina went through a month of shocks, literally. A combination of electric shock therapy sessions and working with a new training coach in February helped her regain fitness.
Back to the grind in March Saina moved around the court gingerly. Her skilled opponents took advantage of her situation. They constantly moved Saina to the far end of the court with effective clears and followed them up with deft drop shots for which she had to lunge on her right foot. Much to the dismay of Saina, the strategy worked well for them.
A certain lack of skill adding to her woes
Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei has always been in the hunt and is one of the top players who joined forces with Saina to quell the Chinese domination. With deception and exceptional shot making as the cornerstones of her game, this young player can give any top player a run for her money. In the off-season, she worked very hard on her fitness and wiped off inconsistencies from her game.
Saina has lost to Tai Tzu Ying twice, the quarter-final of the All England Open and semi-final of the Malaysian Superseries, in the last four months. The Chinese Taipei player stunned Saina with a wide array of shots and deception. Unable to stage a comeback, on both occasions, Saina lost in straight games. The repertoire of her opponent left Saina in the lurch very often. She raised her eyebrows in disbelief and could not find answers to her supremely gifted opponent.
Experts have pointed out at this lack of skill, an ability to execute tight spinning net shots and mixing it up with deception on a consistent basis. Most of Saina’s victories in the last few events this year have been against players out of the top ten. She will have to get on par in terms of skills, with players of the likes of Tai Tzu Ying, in order to build momentum to her campaign this season.
Diffident play against the Chinese duo
Saina led a motley group of non-Chinese players in late 2014 and early 2015 against the Chinese hegemony in Women’s badminton. By winning her first China Superseries title in 2014 and clinching the No.1 Ranking in 2015, Saina ended the Chinese stranglehold on the top Rankings.
However, the Chinese duo of Li Xuerui and Wang Yihan has returned to their former ominous selves this season. Saina has lost to this pair of Olympics medalists on four occasions in 2016. In spite of Saina starting the match well on a couple of occasions, she resorted to diffident play in the latter stages. The Chinese opponents played the crucial points much better than her.
Apart from Wang Shixian with whom Saina has split their 14 encounters, she has an abysmal record against the other two top Chinese players. Saina has a 4-9 head to head record against Wang Yihan and a 2-12 head to head record against Li Xuerui.
Saina’s latest win against Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon, in the ongoing Australian Open Superseries, is a step in the right direction.
The Thai player, who won three consecutive Superseries titles in 2016, is an extremely tricky opponent. With a Federer-esque quality to her movement, she is a treat to watch. For Saina to score a straight games victory over a complete player like Intanon could just be the tipping point she was waiting for. It definitely addresses the skills aspect of her game for now.
Slated to meet Wang Yihan in tomorrow’s semi-final, Saina has a chance to exorcise the ghosts of diffidence. The Chinese looked vulnerable in her recent loss to Tai Tzu Ying in the Indonesian Open Superseries.
If Saina can stay confident and not squander early leads against Yihan, she has a great chance of breaking the semi-final jinx and giving herself a timely shot in the arm for the Rio Olympics.