Saina Nehwal: India’s Beloved Champion

Badminton in India changed forever in August 2012 when Saina Nehwal won an Olympic bronze medal and reached beyond the sporting community into superstardom.

Credit: Veri Sanovri/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

“Saina honestly did something amazing for Indian badminton…I literally had never watched badminton until she started winning. She actually carved out a space for a sport not very popular in India – especially for women – and now it’s so much better.” By September

Like many others I first noticed her at London 2012, however, by that point she was already Commonwealth Champion so she had already achieved significant success.  Losing that semi final in the Olympics must have been  utterly gut wrenching both for her and the nation watching back home.  The bitter disappointment was transformed when she won the bronze and elevated badminton’s popularity to new heights.

Timesofindia.com

On the surface she has quite a ‘classic’ approach to her matches.  By that I mean – as in all singles – she likes to move her opponent to the four corners, tries to get them off balance, makes space, then pounces.  But that description is too simple and doesn’t take into account her brilliance as a tactician or her psychological power.  It’s this mix of skills – all shots form part of her armoury – that make her such a potent player and a fascinating shuttler to watch.

I’ve heard it said that her game relies on retrieving.  Clearly, the disadvantage of this style can be that it is reactive.  There is either going to be a hint of hesitation or a bit of anticipation.  Both of which are weaknesses to be exploited by an opponent.  Someone like Tai Tzu Ying – who has spontaneous unpredictable creativity – can really punish this.   Against most rivals though it is not a flaw; it showcases her incredible mental strength and strategic dexterity. There is no doubt that she needs to draw rivals into rallies. She has a potent smash – her best shot in my opinion – she has to lure the other player into a weak lift to let her unleash.

She has a genius for defence – always a couple of steps ahead and carefully applying pressure upon her opponent.  How must it feel to play against her when nothing you try will break her resistance?  This is the remarkable emotional force she has.  She will fight until her last breath, she never gives up, she doesn’t recognise when she is beaten. She is the sort of person you want by your side in a war.

“Winning is the only option. I am someone who does not like losing in tournaments.”

2015 was arguably the highlight of her career so far because she achieved World No. 1 status .In the years before that, she triumphed in lots of BWF Superseries events such as the Indonesian Open (2009/2010/2012/2019), Singapore Open (2010), Hong Kong Open (2011) and too many others to list here. But then, just as her Rio Olympics campaign was starting, we all know about that knee injury.

Saina talks about injury and her role as an ambassador for Clean, Fair and Honourable Badminton.
Video by kind permission of BWF

It’s a tribute to her hard work and commitment that she came back to the top of the sport after her operation. Her smash needs to be perfect now because as she follows it in to the net there is the threat that she will be caught out. Her shot selection can be a bit risk averse; her pleasure is clearly in doing whatever it takes to win rather than revelling in pin point accuracy.  That attacking clear to a corner is an incredibly useful shot; likewise the cross court net shot to wrong foot her opponent.

I still think there is a lot to come from Saina providing her workload is managed properly. By that I mean that as she gets older it would be ridiculous to play in too many tournaments – badminton is such a physically demanding sport – wear and tear would just be inevitable. But with the right team behind her: coaches, physios, nutritionalists and of course her fans she can still be a beacon for Indian and world badminton.

Saina Nehwal must be the most beloved Indian player. She has been an inspirational game changer in her sport and has touched people far beyond the badminton community. I’ve been inundated with requests to write about her; it’s been hugely enjoyable watching some of her past games and talking to fans about her style. The affection felt for her and the admiration of her is incredible. I’ll give the last word to one of her millions of fans:

“She made an entire nation believe that with hard work and passion Indians can reach the very top in world badminton and consistently win titles. Making a big space for badminton in a cricket mad nation is not easy, now badminton is the second most popular sport in India” Arun – Saina Fan

If you enjoyed this follow the link for more Saina quotes https://womensbadminton.co.uk/saina/

Follow the link below for my article about the other Indian Superstar, P V Sindhu https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/03/25/p-v-sindhu-indias-superstar/

P V Sindhu – India’s Superstar

She is a badminton VIP in a cricket obsessed nation and is listed by Forbes as the highest earning non-tennis athlete in the world. How did she get to these heights?

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo/Xinhua

I think it was written in the stars that her path led to sporting greatness – but why badminton?

Picture from IG

The story goes that as a 6-year-old she was inspired to pick up a racket by Pullela Gopichand’s victory in the Men’s Singles at the All England Championships in 2001. After he wound down his playing career, he opened his academy in Hyderabad and before long she was training there. We all know that excellence is not an accident so what has driven her from an idealistic child to the sporting celebrity she is today

Gopichand has been crucial to her development. His 4am starts are the stuff of legend but there is more to this than simply being an early riser. Famously, three months prior to the Rio Olympics, he banned her from eating sugar or using her mobile. What a shrewd coach he is; by stressing the sacrifices she was making he was training her mind to focus on the target of a medal. It wasn’t a time for trivial things. The competition was a pivotal point when her game advanced to another level. She matched and despatched Tai Tzu Ying, Wand Yihan and Nozomi Okuhara, some of the best players in the sport.

She lost the Olympic final to Carolina Marin but returned home a superstar. Her life has never been the same.

That medal moment

Her powerful smashing game is thrilling to watch, her height – 179cm – allows her to dominate her opponents. She is happy to smash cross court and can exploit steep angles. I’ve heard it said that sometimes her defence is a bit suspect and that her height handicaps her ability to reach low shots. I don’t agree. She has a great reach, but sometimes she appears to be a bit methodical as she builds up a rally to the point where she can overwhelm her opponent. I consider patience to be the mark of a great player. Physically she is very strong and has the endurance to outlast anyone. She is very different to someone like Tai Tzu Ying who often relies on trickery; Sindhu is aggressive and goes out to seize her prizes.

QF WS against Nozomi – a great example of PV’s fight, technique and skill.

When we look at the players in the woman’s game there isn’t a huge difference in ability amongst the top 15; WS at the moment is overflowing with talent. What sets Sindhu apart is her gritty determination. Gopichand has celebrated this publicly and this famous quote from her sums up her attitude

“I am once again ready to roar for my next fight, to finish and win. No loss is ever enough…to stop me believing in myself.”

In December 2018 She won the BWF World Tour Finals tournament in Guangzhou – the first Indian to do so – beating Nozomi Okuhara in 2 games in the final. This was after failing to win a single tournament that year. After that great achievement 2019 has not started easily. She was beaten in the semi final of the Yonex-Sunrise India Open and the Sudirman Cup was not a successful outing for the Indian team. She often seems to be a player who raises herself up for big matches and perhaps finds the relentless grind of the tour a bit tiresome.

There is something missing at the moment. It may be that she and her coaches are rethinking her game in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics and we are in the middle of the remodelling phase; or is she bored and needs a completely new approach? Whatever it is, this is a big game player who still has a lot to win. I hope she is given the support and access to the expertise she’s going to need to keep progressing.

If you enjoyed this then follow the link to my page about Saina Nehwal https://womensbadminton.co.uk/saina/ and here’s the link to my article about Saina https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/05/14/saina-nehwal-indias-beloved-champion/