World Badminton Championships 2017: Gutsy Saina back in top form
Months of injury lay-off, then struggles and defeats in her comeback tournaments resulting in drop in world rankings, besides the fear of a recurring injury; all these setbacks must have troubled Saina Nehwal for quite a while. But on Thursday at the Emirates Arena, all her worries were put to rest as she breezed past South Korean second seed Sung Ji Hyun in straight games to advance to the quarter-finals of the BWF World Championships currently underway in Glasgow.
What was impressive about Nehwal, who was the last Indian to take the court on the day, was she stuck to her game-plan, balanced her attacking and defensive game, played her shots with accuracy and precision, and displayed better mobility.
Coach U. Vimal Kumar has already said that the lay-off might be a ‘blessing in disguise’ for Nehwal. Being away from the spotlight and focusing only on her training, majorly fitness, worked wonders for the former world no. 1 shuttler, who was a losing finalist in the last edition of the World Championships. But two years is a long time and for Nehwal, it was even longer as she suffered, struggled and overcame a career-threatening knee injury just after the Rio Olympics. Such was the degree of her injury that she thought it might end her career. Though the injury started troubling her after the 2015 World Championships.
While Nehwal was nursing her injury and preparing her comeback, her junior, P.V. Sindhu, has taken the centre-stage by becoming the new shuttle queen of the country following her Rio Olympics silver medal show. Thus the comparison between the two shuttlers were inevitable. And their rivalry on and off the court added fuel to the fire.
With a 21-17, 21-15 win over the consistent Sung, Nehwal joined fellow Indians P.V. Sindhu and Kidambi Srikanth in the quarter-finals.
In both the games, the world no. 16 Nehwal trailed initially. Known for her fighting spirit, she turned it around every time with confidence. It seemed Nehwal played with a free mind; there was no pressure on her with the spotlight being on Sindhu and Srikanth this time. And Nehwal made good use of it and at the right time. Her intentions seemed clear; she came here only to win and last day's victory has undoubtedly given her the much-needed mental boost.
Long and energy-sapping rallies was the highlight of this women’s singles pre-quarter-finals, with Saina emerging winner in most of the occasions. Sung was quick off the blocks in both the games and stayed ahead till the break, but failed to continue the momentum thereafter.
In the first game, Sung started off strongly with her cross-court slices being her lethal weapon which Nehwal struggled to retrieve. The Indian’s wide pushes also gave away some quick points to the South Korean. Sung extended her three-point lead to 17-14, but a couple of rallies, followed by good line judgements helped Nehwal plunder three points to level at 17-all. Nehwal then came out with her trademark powerful smashes with precision to win the first game.
Winning the first game was crucial and that too against a top-level performer like Sung, who has been one of the top contenders in all major events this year. The second game had a similar script as Sung led initially before faltering mid-way. The London Olympics bronze medallist came up with some unbelievable retrieves and deceptive strokes, a new weapon in her armoury as she rallied from 7-11 to lead 14-12. Nehwal was able to balance her attack and defence well and put pressure on the net, while Sung struggled to find that stability.
Sung ran out of steam and committed errors as Nehwal reached match point and finished it off in style. Her confidence was back as did her top form. And this win would definitely worry her opponents including defending champion Carolina Marin of Spain, who could cross paths with Nehwal.
Nehwal has a 4-0 head-to-head record against Kirsty Gilmour, her next opponent, and will go into her the match on Friday as a favourite. After all, she is a former world no.1 and has 20 international titles to her name. Fingers crossed.