Profile I did on Saina for All Sports magazine
A delicious moment for Indian badminton: a full-throated roar greeting Saina Nehwal as she strode in for the women’s singles final of the World Junior Championships at Pune early in November. Not in recent memory has an Indian attracted such popular enthusiasm within the country. In the event, as Saina took the title rather easily, becoming the first Indian to win a world title, some parallels could be drawn with Padukone, who won the Indian Masters in this city in 1981, beating China’s Han Jian in the final.
Pune’s association with badminton is well known, and several delegates from foreign contingents were keen to visit the site in the cantonment area where badminton is supposed to have been first played in the 1870s. But those looking for more futuristic signs on Indian badminton weren’t disappointed either, for the full-house that greeted Saina on the last two days of the championships are a rarity in the sport. It seems, finally, that an Indian has managed to pull back the crowds. When Padukone said recently that Saina had it in her to become world no.1, he was voicing the suspicions that the badminton community had harboured for the last four years.
But there is something else that one can detect, a difference in the way Saina appeals to the crowd than any Indian woman player before her. You detect it in the galleries, in the small huddles before and after the match. Simply put, it is the pleasure of seeing an Indian dish it out to the Europeans, the Chinese and Indonesians in a manner that is so un-Indian, and un-womanlike.
Much of Saina’s success comes from self-belief, and that is reflected in her measured swagger, and in the way she dominates the match from the start. This is no Indian trying to befuddle; it is an Indian that is going to overpower. Saina’s strength is not the native quality of deception, but power and pace. The statements she makes on court – the grunts before her powerful smashes, her athletic retrievals – bespeak a player who physically overwhelms her opponents. Her victory over reigning World Champion Zhu Lin at the China Masters catapulted her from being a prospective top ten player to possibly no.1. Padukone is not the sort to give frivolous predictions, and he is especially cautious about prodigies. Saina has breached the Chinese barrier and is on her way. The question now is – can she withstand the pressure and the attention?
Already there are signs the Chinese are feverishly studying her. In the World Junior semifinal, Wang Shixian, ranked beyond 200, seemed to read Saina’s game well in the first game – specially her potent cross-court drop, and the Indian was pushed hard in the first game before cruising through in the second. One problem could be that Saina has to work hard for her points – she is not blessed with the abundance of strokes that Aparna Popat or Trupti Murgunde has, and hence cannot create points as easily. Her game is very physical, and that might not deter a top-level Chinese player, who comes after years of tough physical opponents. Still, the fact that she is world no.11 and has the Chinese in her sights is an indicator of her sharp mind, on-court intelligence, and composure under pressure.
Saina is on her way to heading the world’s challenge to China. The earlier challengers are fading – Denmark’s Tine Rasmussen, their nemesis over the last year and All England winner, has become a shadow of herself. Malaysian Wong Mew Choo likewise has fallen behind. Their only real challenger is Hong Kong’s Zhou Mi – a former Chinese no.1, who immigrated to Hong Kong – but she is on the wrong side of 30.
There are many who believe that in the post-Beijing Olympics world, China would decline as a badminton powerhouse. Several of their top stars retired, and it seemed there was a vacuum. But the China Open Super Series (Nov 18 to 23) proved how imaginary these speculations could be. In a draw of 32, six of the eight quarterfinalists were Chinese – some we haven’t even heard of earlier! (Saina fell in a tough three-setter to world champion Zhu Lin in the first round.) Three-time All England champion Xie Xingfang was dumped in the quarters, and a similar fate befell world no.1 Zhou Mi. All semifinalists were young Chinese, early 20s or below, and the draw hadn’t even featured world no.3 Lu Lan! The world no.1 put things in perspective when she talked about her victor Zhu Jingjing: “This girl is just amazing, she is never tired and runs around the four corners.” Expect to hear more of her.