Saina needs to add variety to her game if she has to stay in the top-ten
Dev S Sukumar
April 8, 2009: Saina Nehwal’s loss in the first round of the Asian championships on Wednesday will have added to the concern of her fans, especially since it follows her quarterfinal loss at the India Open to an opponent who she has beaten thrice before. This year hasn’t begun too well, and is in contrast to an excellent last season. Are there some common threads that run through her recent losses?
One discernible pattern is that her losses have generally been in three setters to tough opponents, after she has taken the first game. This could mean that, while her opponents have fallen to her pace and power early on, they have been able to find their rhythm and read her game later on. Following her loss to Julia Wong, Saina hinted that she had set a high pace in the first game, and did not have enough in reserve. But perhaps there are other aspects to sort out as well.
Saina plays a high-intensity game, her forte being power and speed. Her points are not earned easily, for she does not have the deception of Trupti Murgunde or the courtcraft of Aparna Popat. Against opponents whose defence is sound and can retrieve relentlessly, she will always have a problem. Pi Hongyan, who has a 5-1 record against her, is one such player, who, despite being 30, was able to beat Saina comfortably in the first round of the All England. “Saina has to develop a few more components to her game,” world No.4 Hongyan told DNA. “She’s got power and speed… but she has to develop a few more strokes.” Like Chetan Anand, she needs to learn to gain a few points in every game without expending too much energy. This is why deception and the dribble have always been critical to the Indian game.
Two of her losses over the last few months are peculiar: the Olympic quarterfinal against Yulianti, and the Swiss Open third round against world No.3 Lu Lan. In both matches, she was comfortably ahead, only to see her opponent notch up a string of points to win the match. Against Lu Lan, she was 17-13 up in the third game, and gave away an incredible eight straight points! “I don’t know what happened,” Saina reflected. “I was playing well, but she suddenly started picking up all the shuttles. She started anticipating all my strokes… Maybe I should have been patient and stayed in the rally.”
In both matches, it was the inability to break her opponent’s rhythm that hurt her.
A team mate observes that opponents are now picking her backhand because her recovery from the backhand corner is relatively slow. She prefers the round-the-head to the conventional backhand, and that means a few more steps in every rally.
It doesn’t help that the new generation of Chinese are looking as formidable as their seniors. But Saina has plenty of time ahead of her, and she is committed and intelligent enough to find answers. Her approach in the coming months will be interesting.