Dev S Sukumar. Bangalore
At the highest levels of badminton, a game that can shock you with the incredible athleticism of its principal competitors, a game of reflex and speed and high power, what are the cliffs that one has to surmount to scale the peak? What margins of error cause one to remain a competitor and not a winner?
Saina Nehwal has been trying ever since she broke into the international scene three years ago. Her first title came early, the Philippines Open in 2006, but even that was against relatively weaker opposition. Then there was the World Junior title at Pune last year. But overall, in tournament after tournament, she seemed to be sizing up the final assault on the peak, and yet there was one hurdle left. The Chinese hordes, a veritable army of them that arrived at every tournament, always got her.
But the adjustments have been made, the barriers in the mind have been scaled. At Stadium Istora in Jakarta, Saina Nehwal gave the classic display, one that moved the pioneer of the ‘Indian style’ of playing, Prakash Padukone, to remark that it would serve as a “model” to young players. With two wins over the Chinese in two days, Saina Nehwal has arrived where few Indians have tread.
“Yeah, I broke the jinx,” said Saina on phone from Jakarta. “I used to be a bit scared of them. It always used to be three games, and I would lose. Now I’m more confident.”
What were the adjustments she had to make? “I played with more patience,” she said. “I played more rallies, rather than hitting all the time like I used to. My defence was good, and my netplay was excellent.”
Has she found the ‘ideal’ way to play them? “It varies with every match, you can’t have one fixed way of playing. Every match is different, and so is every player. They change their game during the match, so you have to play according to that. Wang Lin is a good attacking player, with a lot of strong drives. Lu Lan, who I beat in the semifinal, has a lot of different strokes, and is a rally kind of player. You have to be careful while playing them. They run a lot, they retrieve a lot of shuttles. So you need to change your own tactics even during a match.”
Meanwhile, the man who’d done it all before, the one who had shown the way, was effusive in his praise. “When I saw the third game, she played exactly as I would have,” Prakash Padukone said. “This is the way to play them. I’m planning to show this match at the academy; it can serve as a model to our players. It’s all about using the wrist and deception — to create openings using deception. Her net game was immaculate, the dribbles were so sharp. She used the flicks at the right time, and the Chinese girl had no clue what was happening in the third game. This is what we Indians are good at, and this is how we must approach the game.” Coming from a man who beat a Chinese 15-0 18-16 in the final of the World Cup in 1981, there couldn’t have been better endorsement.