Memories of March 1980

Saina Nehwal’s defence of her Indonesia Open title gave her a hat-trick of wins after her India Open and Singapore Open title wins, and is reminiscent of Prakash Padukone’s ‘Grand Slam’ in 1980

Dev S Sukumar. Bangalore

Three Sundays, three titles. Saina Nehwal turned June 2010 into a historic month for Indian badminton with three titles in three successive weeks to rekindle memories of February-March 1980. Prakash Padukone had then won the Swedish, Danish and All England titles to become world No.1.

After her India Open GP Gold and Singapore Open Super Series titles over the last two weeks, the hat-trick was achieved with a 21-19 13-21 21-11 victory over Japan’s Sayaka Sato in the Indonesia Open Super Series final on Sunday. After a smooth first game, when the top seeded Indian looked on course, Sato turned it around brilliantly with a mix of tricky clips and half-smashes that left Saina conserving her energies for the third game. Sato’s challenge evaporated in the closing stages, however, and the Indian again brought her power to bear, as she successfully defended her title.

The summit that Padukone scaled is now within sight of Saina as well. Not that she cares too much about rankings. “I want to be 100 per cent at every tournament,” she said. “I’m not concerned about rankings. If I win, my ranking will improve. My focus is on improving my game and fitness. If that happens, everything else follows.” As it happens, that strategy has brought her to a career-best No.3; the top slot isn’t far away.

There are no comparisons to evoke among India’s women badminton players, of course. Saina had already gone beyond that, with her first Super Series title last year. The world has few challengers to Chinese domination of the women’s singles. Like Padukone in his time, Saina is expected to lead the resistance.

“If you look at the results over the last few months, there aren’t many with her record,” says Gopichand. “She’s been very consistent, and getting better all the time. It’s simple – just use your brains while training, don’t complicate things too much. I don’t use computer software or anything to analyse. Just simple brains.”

A hat-trick of major titles is rare among the non-Chinese. Among the men, Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei has managed to string together big titles – when his feared opponent Lin Dan is not around. Chong Wei has always had to live with the shroud of Lin Dan in the background – a sort of modern-day Vikram carrying his own betal; with Saina, no such questions are asked because her Singapore Open Super Series title last week was achieved in the face of the stiffest opposition. It was the Singapore Open, more than any other, that reinforced her stature – it was just her second Super Series title, and her first win over a Chinese in a year. But even during the spell of losses to the Chinese, Saina never lost her faith. “I’m not scared of anybody,” she would say. “It’s about fitness. If I’m fit, I’ll win.”

When Padukone talks of Saina, there is acknowledgement of a particular ability that no words can describe, and which he finds in no other current Indian player. It’s what might be called the recognition of winnability – the ability to nail a match despite all the odds – of fatigue, court conditions, crowd behaviour, pressure, and one’s own expectations. To go beyond the satisfaction of having won two titles in two weeks, and plead fatigue in a third successive final, is a rare quality that the two share, across many generations.

There are of course more summits to conquer – the Asian Games, the World Championships, and the Olympics. Saina is only 20. There is plenty of time yet.

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About badmintonmania

Sometimes I wonder if I'm the Indian in Thoreau's Walden who makes cane baskets and is surprised nobody wants them. A. was talking about discipline when she said: "But Dev, if you want to move ahead in life, you'll have to be like that," and she may as well have defined everything else for me. I've played the low percentage game for too long to believe there's anything in it but the romance; the odds keep getting jacked up higher and higher; and you may be a good Idealist but a worse Fool.
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