Saina Nehwal is the superstar who has leapt over mere sporting boundaries to make history all through her career.
Millions of fans have followed her since the early days of succcess when she was the torchbearer for women’s badminton in Indian. Before her famous victories its profile was modest but she sent a jolt through the sporting community and now the sport is enjoyed and supported by millions.
“when I was a match point down it was like a shock. It was a big match and winning it means a lot to me. Even many years from now those present here will remember how Saina won the Gold. It is a proud feeling” Saina after her CG Gold.
What she says is true. Speak to any devotee and they will remember where they were on the day of the Delhi Commonwealth Games WS Badminton final. Some were at the office watching on a shared TV, some at a club, others were at home with family but everyone recalls the happiness and relief of that moment when she seized her destiny.
She is a dangerous, complex player to face. Her foundations are rugged, she possesses the full array of shots and takes a somewhat orthodox approach: a standard singles strategy of pulling and pushing her opponent around the court, shifting focus from side to side, waiting for a weak return to seize upon and punish. This is hardly the full story though. The characteristics that have elevated her are psychological strength combined with tactical dexterity.
While she doesn’t have the pace of three or four years ago she can compensate for this with her resilience. She is a good defender and although too much reliance on retrieving can be a weakness I don’t recognise this as a fault in her game. She is an intelligent reader of other players and can out-maneouvre opponents during the match. Of course, this mental strength really draws the sting of a rival. She is lethal once the momentum starts to go in her direction. As soon as this happens she turns the screw and can make sure the other player suffers a drought of opportunities. Her emotional muscle often overpowers because the other player just runs out of ideas.
Since the All England Championships she has had to cope with a sequence of injuries which will have affected her training and so her fluency on court. As she recovers her fitness she will have an eye on the Olympic qualifying date of 30th April 2020; she must be ranked in the top 16 then to book her place in Tokyo. So long as her regime is well-managed I don’t see any reason for her to miss this milestone. Could she win another medal?
Saina was the first Indian to win the World Junior Badminton Championships (2008)
She was the first Indian woman to win a Super Series Tournament (Indonesian Open 2009)
First Indian to win an Olympic medal at badminton (London 2012)
First Indian Woman to be ranked World Number 1 (2015)
Saina would have been a success whatever profession she chose; she could have been a scientist, engineer or architect, it wouldn’t matter. She is a person who brings 100% commitment and integrity to whatever she undertakes. She has inspired millions of people all around the world and given so much to the badminton community. The loyalty and passion of her fans is second-to-none and the sport is by far the richer for her influence.
The tour swings by Europe for October: first Denmark then France. In the last few months we’ve seen Akane dispatched in R1 (thrice), Nozomi crumple somewhat after her World Championship final mauling by Sindhu and HE Bing Jiao end her 3 year search for a title; so what does the Danish tournament have in store? In a year of jaw-dropping upsets, giant killings and injuries will we have predictable problems or unexpected catastrophes? One thing is certain, the final in Odense will not be between the top two seeds….or will it?
TAI Tzu Ying: Defending Champion & World Number 1
So what can we expect? Well, the extraordinary is ordinary for TTY. Her stunning technical ability combined with a no-limits approach is an irresistible blend. Her weakness is often her focus, which can drift. Sometimes she snaps back into the match and scores points at will, but occasionally the momentum is handed to her rival and the game is lost. She is defending champion but only seeded 4. To her advantage, Coach Lai will be looking after her full-time now he has stepped down from his Taiwan national team duties. Prediction: Final
P V Sindhu: World Champion & seeded 5
Following the excitement of Basle, Sindhu has crashed out of two tournaments without touching the podium. In the larger context of her career this isn’t a concern; clearly her normal life has been disrupted by the hoohaa surrounding her fabulous victory. More alarming though is the unfortunate departure of coach Kim; I hope appropriate support is in place to fill the gap. Tunjung is her R1 opponent and she is very capable of beating the Indian. AN Se Young is potentially her next challenge. It’s no exageration to say she has the worst draw of any of the seeds. Prediction either early exit or final!
CHEN YuFei: Ms Consistency & seeded 2
Since the beginning of 2019 Feifei has won four finals (including the All England), lost 5 semi-finals, and had a crucial role in China’s victory in the Sudirman Cup. Her style is patient and clever; often she ‘just’ keeps the shuttle in play and sets traps for her unwary opponents to walk into. Perhaps because of this approach she seems less susceptible to injury. Her first round opponent is the giant-killing YEO Jia Min who could spring a surprise: if CYF is to progress she must be ready as soon as she steps on court. Prediction: Semi
Carolina Marin: She’s Back!
What a thrill to see the irrepressible Marin back on court and winning the China Open! She was playing freely with no loss of speed so it seems that her recovery from her horrible injury has been good. It’s difficult to predict how she will progress here but there is no doubt that she is entering tournaments because she can win them. Don’t underestimate how unnerving it will be for her opponents to play her so soon after damaging her ACL: should they try and put pressure on the wounded side? Prediction: Hmmm, not sure…
HE Bing Jiao: Seeded 7
Winner of the Korea Open – including saving 4 match points against Ratchanok – HE Bing Jiao is often an overlooked player on the tour. This low profile has been caused by a Gold famine (3 years up to Korea) and her compatriot’s success. It’s feasible that her Korea Open win will be the beginning of a medal rush. Seeded 7. Prediction QF.
Ratchanok Intanon: Seeded 6
“Sometimes to be a champion, it’s not just about the competition, it’s also about how you live your daily life”
The losing finalist at the Korea Open has enjoyed a good year so far. For all her balletic grace on court she is a gritty fighter who never gives up even when the situation seems irretrievable. Her racket shoulder does seem to be quite heavily strapped these days but that isn’t particularly unusual for many players. Recently I think she has been beaten by CYF & HBJ because they sat back and let her try to force the game. She doesn’t need to play like that, it would be good if she sometimes had a bit more patience. Prediction: QF
Nozomi Okuhara: Seeded 3
Things haven’t been easy for Nozomi since her loss in the World Championship final against Sindhu. A couple of bad results haven’t suddenly made her a bad player though. In my opinion she can sometimes rely too heavily on her retrieving abilities. I’d like her to be a bit more ‘Momota’, that is to say, more unpredictable and more explosive. All top players are refining their skills constantly so it will be exciting to see how her game evolves in the run-up to Tokyo2020. Prediction: Final
Can Saina & Akane Escape From The Treatment Room?
Saina’s had a miserable few months with injuries; just as it seems she is back to full fitness she suffers a setback. This must make it impossible to follow a progressive training regime and the risk exists (albeit small) that she will not qualify for Tokyo. Prediction 50/50 whether she is fully fit to play but if she does then QF
Akane – seeded 1 – on the other hand has had a pretty good year culminating in a wonderful July. She became world number 1, won the Indonesian Open and then the Japan Open over a few crazily successful weeks. The euphoria around this has diluted somewhat owing to her premature exits in the World Championships, the China Open and the Korea Open. She has had a back complaint; this disrupted her training and hindered her movement in a match. However, the good news -according to Morten Frost on Badminton Central – is that she has told him the back injury is healed. “No back problems any more”. However, she is having a problem on her right calf muscle. Prediction QF
These two players- if they are fit- could win the tournament, but there’s no evidence either of them have regained full fitness. I’m more hopeful for Akane and a decent run of games is just what she needs now.
Any Fairytales For The Home Contingent?
The WS category has Line Kjaersfeldt and Mia Blichfeldt who are both fine players but the seeding is against them and I can’t see either making much headway against Ratchanok and similar top 10 competitors. Just as an aside I think it’s a different story in MS. Who would bet against Viktor getting to the final? He’s ‘only’ seeded 7 but I think that’s the product of his allergy blighted summer. Anders Antonsen is another live prospect; his improvement over the last months has been terrific and it would be no big shock to see him on the podium too.
Any surprises? The most competitive sector of badminton always throws up something. It wouldn’t be impossible for someone like SUNG Ji Hyun, Tunjung or AN Se Young to overachieve and get to a semi-final. If the seeding plays out then it will be Akane Vs Feifei on October 20th. I love to watch tournaments unfold; it’s not only about the spectacular wins, for true fans its also the pleasure in seeing a favourite improve, a new player burst onto the scene, courage under pressure or simply a beautiful shot. Often the player who gets a feel for the arena early on can build her momentum towards Gold. P V Sindhu has a very harsh draw, but if she can hit the ground running it could be a great final to contest. Aside from podium finishers, I hope Saina can compete well. She’s a legendary player and this year must be terribly frustrating for her. This is going to be a fascinating competition and may the best woman win!
The road to Tokyo2020 has been a bumpy one for a lot of the WS competitors so far – I wonder if the China Open is going to be any smoother for them?
I think this tournament will pose some awkward questions for several players. 2019 has produced upsets crafted by rising stars of the new generation and there hasn’t been a dominant athlete. So here is the last Super 1000 of 2019 and my opinions about the top seeds.
P V Sindhu: World Champion
Since witnessing her obliteration of Nozomi in the World Championship final every player should be frightened of what Sindhu can do. It was an imperious campaign powered by Coach Kim and her refocus on skills. In that sort of form Sindhu can beat anyone, but she knows that to keep winning she cannot stand still; improvement must be continuous. It’s possible she might come up against Tai Tzu Ying in the SF and I think this will pose a new sort of problem. Prediction: Semi Final.
TAI Tzu Ying: The Queen
TAI Tzu Ying’s skills are always spinetingling to watch but her form has been a bit lacklustre recently – by her own extraordinary standards she is underachieving. Her focus sometimes wavers in the middle of matches: she needs to control this and be more cunning. In order to get to the final she may have to overcome Saina and vanquish the resurgent Sindhu. Can she do it? Of course! Will she do it? Hmmmm. Prediction: Final
Note to fans: Suffering is optional.
Akane Yamaguchi: World #1
After a fabulous July, Akane was brutally dumped out of the World Championships in R1. It was a gloomy sight for all her supporters who will want her to rediscover the touch that got her to World #1. Prediction QF.
Will She? Wont She? Part 1 – We Need To Talk About Saina.
Saina has been on the comeback trail after a wretched six months of injuries and illness which started back in March. We expected to see her at the Chinese Taipei Open at the beginning of September but she withdrew at the last minute. A month earlier at the World Championships in Basel she had an unlucky – albeit controversial – loss to Mia Blichfeldt early on but seemed to be playing reasonably smoothly. Her fans ache for the ‘old’ Saina to turn up, literally and metaphorically. Saina plays to WIN not for the exercise but on this occasion I don’t think she’s going to progress beyond QF.
Ratchanok Intanon: Seeded #6
May was obviously overjoyed with her Bronze at the World Championships in August – she deserved it – she had to fight for it, save match points, and be patient. May knows how to win. That spirit and drive for success is such an asset in competitions crowded with talent which is why my prediction is: Final
Chen Yufei: Seeded #3
Feifei has home advantage in this tournament…except I’m not sure how much of a help this will be to a player who can blow a bit hot and cold. She is a patient, fit athlete with good stamina whose strategy often seems to keep the shuttle in play. She has the ability to adapt her game as a match progresses so this is a major strength. However, the knowledgable crowd are capable of undermining her occasionally shaky confidence and she could meet AN Se Young in R2 which is an awkward match to call. Prediction: either early shock exit or QF.
Nozomi Okuhara: Seeded #4
Nozomi was brutally destroyed by Sindhu at the World Championships; at times it was hard to watch – can she bounce back so soon after that carnage? According to the draw she will meet Marin in R1, and potentially Tunjung after that. She must bounce back from the disappointment of Silver in Basel quickly, her game was dismantled too easily and she had no way of fighting back. Too tough to call – time will tell!
Will She? Wont She? Part Two – The Return of Carolina Marin
Carolina’s first outing since rupturing her ACL back in January ended with a R1 exit at the Yonex-Sunrise Vietnam Open however, there are reasons to be cheerful. Her mental grit and defiance have to be applauded; treading the hard yards in rehab is no picnic but she has dedicated herself to returning to competition. I think that she will have to see how her body responds to her this outing and then structure her competitive calendar accordingly. Prediction:R1 exit to Nozomi
Gregoria Mariska Tunjung
Gregoria has a great opportunity to progress in this tournament, even though she’s unseeded with a fairly tough draw. Her matches are often tantalisingly poised, and there have been some agonising losses. If she can get off to a good start and find her tournament rhythm quickly her moment will come. Prediction: QF
SUNG collected the Chinese Taipei Open trophy in early September and along with HE is always a respected player in these competitions, despite their seeding though it would be a major upset if they were to win. As for ASY, she is still a raw talent who is very capable of giant-killing but I don’t feel she is able to construct a long campaign on that basis yet.
From a personal viewpoint I would love to see the final contested by Ratchanok May and Tai Tzu Ying in front of the Chinese crowd. It’s always fascinating to watch these tournaments unfold: there are dramas along the way as the intensity builds and we get swept along by the momentum of the games. May can dig out wins when all seems lost, and TTY can dazzle us all. Who desires this title the most?
The news has broken this morning that Saina has withdrawn. What a pity, because her participation has been so eagerly anticipated by her millions of supporters all around the world. So, nevertheless we are left with the possibility of some great games – the opportunity is still there now for a player to grasp the chance for glory in front of some of the most knowledgable and committed fans in the world.
Saina was on the comeback trail after a year disrupted by injury, so her fans were eager to see the ‘old Saina’ collect this trophy. If she had played she would have stood every chance of winning and this would surely kick-start her campaign for Tokyo qualification. We know that she’s got unparalleled mental toughness; she doesn’t play for fun, she plays to WIN. I guess we will just have to wait a little longer before she shows us what she’s got.
Gregoria Mariska Tunjung
Gregoria is a thrilling talent with brilliant net skills; a lovely player to watch. She hasn’t been able to break into the top 10 in the world rankings so this often means she comes up against the big players early on in a tournament. She needs to acquire the ability to win; once she can do this she’ll lose her reputation for inconsistency. Gregoria had an exceptional game against Ratchanok in the recent World Championships – including 2 match points – but in the end was conquered by May over three games. Prediction: Semi Final
Michelle Li: Contender
At the start of August LI won her third Pan Am Games Gold medal and is a worthy #2 seed. It’s well-known that she has had an injury disrupted career – taking a chunk of time off in 2017 to recover from surgery – but she’s back now. Remember her victory over Tai Tzu Ying at the Japan Open 2019? That’s what makes me say: Finalist.
Beiwen ZHANG: Seeded 3
After a stop-start career spread over a few countries it looks like ZHANG is settled in the USA with a firm chance of Olympic qualification. Obviously the coaching resources and support available to her are nowhere near what she could’ve had in Singapore or China hence it’s a tribute to her talent and robustness that she is so successful. She’s a punchy attacker who loves to get hold of a game; once momentum is on her side she is difficult to stop. On her day she can overcome anyone and must fancy her chances in this tournament. Prediction: Semi Final.
AN Se Young: Young Gun
AN Se Young is such a raw exciting prospect – one of the new generation of women’s singles players. Her victory over Tai Tzu Ying in the Sudirman Cup this year was a huge shock. It’s apparent that she has learnt to win matches rather than merely playing well. As she no longer has to deal with Saina my prediction is finalist.
YEO Jia Min: Giant Killer
YEO’s confidence must be sky high at the moment but she’s drawn Michelle LI (seeded 2) in the first round and it’s a very tricky match for both players. She sensationally beat Akane Yamaguchi in the first round of the World Championships in August, this followed her triumph over AN Se Young in the final of the Hyderabad Open. No prediction!
Saina Nehwal: #1 Seed XXX WITHDRAWN XXX
She had a very unlucky – not to say controversial- loss at the recent World Championships to Mia Blichfeldt. I am very, very uneasy about her chances against AN Se Young in the first round. Saina is going to need all her experience and cunning. However if she conquers the Korean I reckon she is going to be a finalist.
Once a tournament begins it quickly becomes apparent who is on form & who is slightly off-colour. It’s not good enough to be a talented player; as one match quickly follows another the ability to grow into a competition and grasp victories is a key asset. The Korean player SUNG Ji Hyun is seeded 4 and must be in with a great chance. there is a large Korean contingent and KIM (Ga Eun) has got to be respected too. Scotland’s Kirsty Gilmour, the Thai player Jindapol and of course Indonesia’s Fitriani are all in with a shout but I think the opposition will be just too tough this time.
Can I Quickly Mention Polii & Rahayu?
Bronze Medalists at the World Champs
They come into this tournament as top seeds in the Women’s Doubles sector and I cannot see who will beat them. They played with courage and heart at the World Championships and deserved their place on the podium. WD is completely dominated by the exceptional Japanese pairs at but I really think these two are world class and who knows what surprises could be instore in the next few months
The first match can be a nerve wracking encounter for players as they have to get used to the arena’s conditions: drift, humidity & its effect upon the flight of the shuttle. Whoever adapts first and rides the momentum of the game gets a great advantage. Tunjung could be one to watch; there’s less fuss around her at the moment – the noise is for AN & YEO – so this is an opportunity for her to get a podium finish and try and climb the rankings. LI and ZHANG must have their eye on this title – it’s a cliché but who wants it most? All in all, a great week in prospect.
If you enjoyed this follow the link to my article about Saina
Sindhu has always been regarded as a player for the big occasion and in Basel she unleashed her inner badminton beast to grab Gold. In the final she completely annihilated Nozomi Okuhara; it’s no exaggeration to describe her play as majestic.
All through the World Championships it has been a joy to watch this revitalised athlete demolish her rivals. Her style can be summed up in three words: pressure, pressure, PRESSURE. There was precision and panache to her shots. It was evident she was thinking clearly and following her plan to great effect. Momentum is so important in sport; her rivals were simply incapable of stopping her.
Earlier this year the situation was very different. We were watching a player who had lost her mojo. The spark was missing; she was lacking in confidence and often was quite deflated. Her millions of fans around the world have high expectations so there was huge disappointment at a dreary performance at the Yonex All England, & then ‘only’ bronze at the Yonex-Sunrise India Open – her home tournament.
Recently performances have improved. July saw definite progress. The Blibli Indonesia Open – one of the best quality competitions on the tour – saw her clinch silver. She was beaten in the final but we saw a glimpse of the player on show at this World Championships. She was more assertive on court, and just seemed easier in herself.
I think we can point to the increasing influence of coach Kim Ji Hyun as one of the main reasons for her change. In a revealing interview with Dev Sukumar on the BWF website she said
“The way she plays, I feel it is not smart enough, I mean, at the top level, you have to be smart. It has to be a combination…your technique, and hitting and mentality. There are so many skills she has to work on, especially net skills and deception. Step by step. We’re working on skills and changing tactics.” Coach Kim
It’s clear now that we have been watching a player working hard to evolve her game. She has the reputation of a big smash – and of course that is true – but she has demonstrated a new level of skill in the World Championships. Against Nozomi the strategy was to try and push her back with some strong clears, this was supported by powerful smashing and, most importantly, great follow ups. There was such a positivity to her game, she was completely in control.
Sindhu becomes the first player from India ever to win Gold at the World Championships. It was a brilliant achievement from a woman who has not been content to rest on the laurels of her Olympic success in Rio. We are, of course, in the qualifying year for Tokyo 2020. There’s no doubt that she is a very serious contender for the title there too; it’s going to be a very exciting year ahead.
“It was a very important win for me and I’m really very happy!” P V Sindhu
The Badminton World Championships start on August 19th so I’m taking a look at some of the main contenders for Women’s Singles gold.
This discipline is full of talent – and unlike the men’s singles it’s not dominated by one person – so it will be an intriguing contest right from the beginning. All tournaments offer a rising intensity as players progress through the rounds: physical endurance can be sapped as well as the emotional drain of competition. The parity of ability amongst the top seeds means that being able to deal with tournament pressure will have a huge part to play. Who will relish the fight?
“…every player has a chance of being crowned champion.” Ratchanok
Nozomi Okuhara: Contender
Nozomi’s been in the waiting room this year – she hasn’t enjoyed the same level of success as Akane and yet she is a fabulous player. Her tactics often mean she gets stuck in a war of attrition so I’d like to see a bit less patience and more drive to finish off a rally. I think her edge is blunted by predictability so it would be great to see her surprise her opponent (& us!) a bit more often. Prediction: Final.
Tai Tzu Ying: The Queen
Tai Tzu Ying has never won the World Championships and goes into this competition as #2 seed. Because of her hints about retirement and her lack of big tournament form recently, fans have focused on this title with the sense that time is running out. I cannot pretend to be neutral about Tai Tzu Ying – the way she plays is brilliant and gives me so much pleasure – so I wish I felt more confident about this tournament. Her possible path to the final is tough and includes Sindhu who would relish a big battle. Prediction Semi Final.
Akane: World #1
Akane’s triumph at the Indonesian Open quickly followed by success in the Japan Open – her home tournament – means that she enters the World Championships as #1. Since disappointment in the Sudirman Cup her game has become more aggressive with a willingness to push her rivals around. She can’t just win everything from now on though, can she? Prediction Semi Final.
Feifei is a very clever player with the might of the Chinese coaches behind her. I think she is good at rebalancing her game to beat whoever she faces. Often she traps ‘flair’ players into thinking they will conquer her by playing their natural game. She waits it out and then finishes them off; her natural strength means she can get through three draining games. It’s been said that her weakness is her inability to cope with her nerves but this seems to be eratic. Prediction: Final
P V Sindhu: fighter
Sindhu is renowned as a big match player and this skill is a huge advantage in the top tournaments. By her own standards 2019 has been quite quiet but July saw her spring into life. It was great to see a refreshed player getting her game back. I love her style when she unleashes her inner badminton beast and dominates the court with her aggressive smashes and drives. I think that’s going to be the secret of success for her; when she’s confident and plays like that she can become unstoppable. She is seeded 5 and her path to success looks very tough: Zhang Beiwen in R16 and possibly TTY in the quarters. Prediction: QF owing to hard draw.
2019 has seen Saina endure various injuries and this has obviously disrupted her training programme. Her half of the draw is no picnic & includes players like Chen Yufei and P V Sindhu. She always has the desire to win and heaps of experience but realistically I can’t see her progressing beyond QF. That’s not necessarily a bad performance in the context of her year so far. I see this competition as her opportunity to continue to work on her match fitness and focus on her aim to get to Tokyo 2020. Prediction QF
“… women’s singles is so competitive that on any given day whoever can control herself and play her style of game will be the champion.” Ratchanok
May lost out in the Thailand Open Final to Chen Yufei but she played very well in that match. CYF won because she played with patience and endurance – often in rallies she was content to simply keep sending the shuttle back. Towards the end May did slightly alter her approach but by that point it was too late. It’s been noticeable that since then she has been posting plenty of evidence on IG of her hard work in the gym so perhaps this means she’s preparing her body for longer games with less reliance upon a dazzling winner and more focus on turning the screw. Prediction Semi Final
Funny things can happen in knock-out tournaments; sometimes athletes really fly through their games and suddenly find themselves in a quarter final. The Indonesian players -Fitriani & Tunjung – are both talented but frustratingly inconsistent. Their homeland can have high hopes of medals from others but it would be a welcome shock if honours came from WS.
Michelle Li from Canada can push anyone on her day and often gets good results but realistically I don’t think she would trouble Chen Yufei (assuming she gets past Saina).
Chochuwong had a great run in the Thailand Open but again her draw is tricky. Lastly He Be Jiao is seeded 6 so has to be taken seriously as a possible semi-finalist.
So, in conclusion…
That gold medal, that title, the culmination of years of work, is realistically within the reach of about eight of the players. It’s going to take an immense effort – physically and emotionally – to clinch the prize. I also think it requires someone to play with inspiration and joy; there is more to winning this than mere sweat and toil.
PV Sindhu enjoyed a good run to the women’s singles final of the Indonesian Open Super Series in Jakarta, but was found wanting when facing Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi across the net in the title clash. It was not her physical prowess that was tested, but her ability to think on her feet. We saw that last year as well in the Asian Games women’s singles final, where Sindhu was up against Tai Tzu-Ying of Chinese Taipei.
Such repeated tactical failures, not to mention the lack of success on the BWF World Tour lead to questions about whether those coaching the elite players have explored all possibilities in helping them realise their potential.
In any other sport the chief coach would have been held responsible. Pullela Gopichand, who took over the reins as National Coach from Vimal Kumar back in 2006 and has ploughed a lonely furrow by and large, has delivered some heartening results in the past. But that should not be a reason for the Badminton Association of India to gloss over recent results.There is no point lamenting the unexplained departure of Indonesian Mulyo Handoyo in early 2018. Nor will much be served by pointing fingers at the conspicuous absence of a team of coaches working to ensure that the assembly line would not lose shape and form. It is perhaps more important to see what can be done to remedy the situation.
India’s badminton gained momentum when Saina Nehwal won the Olympic games bronze medal in London 2012 and Sindhu topped it with a silver medal in Rio four years later. Yet, the high of 2017 when Srikanth won a clutch of four Super Series titles has receded as a distant memory now in the following 18 months. Indeed, the slide has been quite palpable: if we consider winning an international title as a benchmark, the drought is stark.
Last year, Sameer Verma won the men’s honours in two Super 300 events – while PV Sindhu claimed the women’s singles crown in the World Tour Finals in Shanghai. And this year, Saina Nehwal won the Indonesian Masters, a Super 500 event. To be sure, Sourabh Verma won two Super 100 titles while Sameer Verma and Subhankar Dey picked up one each last year. It is significant that there have been no winners even in Super 100 tournaments this year. As for doubles competition, suffice to say that the story has been bleaker than in singles.
The BAI’s junior programme has not inspired confidence that the success of a handful of elite players at global level over the past few years can be replicated in the immediate future. A huge part of the reason is the inadequate exposure provided to most of the juniors.
Lakshya Sen and Kartikey Gulshan Kumar are ranked in the top five in the men’s section while Jakka Vaishnavi Reddy and Aakarshi Kashyap are in the top 10 in the women’s section, but it would be a good wager that they have paid their own way (or got their own sponsors) for most tournaments.
Of course, some good news surfaces in a sporadic manner, the most recent being left-handed Malvika Bandod defeating top-seeded Phittayaporn Chaiwan 21-18, 21-19 in the WS second round of the Badminton Asia Junior Championships in Suzhou, China. If the right support is extended to the deserving, some of them may go on to be good flag-bearers for Indian badminton.
Word has it that the Sports Secretary – Radheysham Julaniya – has indicated to the BAI to come up with a dynamic plan to help the juniors sharpen their competitive skills. The reported decision to not fund trips to all international events for the senior lot can come as a wake-up call against stagnation.
For a sport that has caught the fancy of youngsters, it would be a pity if badminton were not to capitalise on its popularity. While many a discipline is struggling to create a mass base in the country, this sport has ignored the need to create rungs between the base and the elite level. It is never too late to do some course correction so that the legacy is not lost.
The BAI is not short of cash. According to data in the public domain it earned no less than Rs 11.62 crore from broadcast rights & Rs 9.57 from sponsorship in 2016-17. The powers that be must identify a team of committed coaches across the nation to handle the junior programme but with a chief coach for juniors who can help with a roadmap for the transition. It must take the most talented juniors under its wings, providing them with the righ environment in training and support to compete so they can move to the next level.
Resting on their oars has never helped anyone progress. The time for BAI to realise this is fast slipping away. Yes, Indian badminton needs to get off the treadmill that it has found itself on and get going. Sooner than later if it wants to stay relevant on the global stage and not cede its position in the popularity stakes in India to other disciplines of sport.
Badminton in India changed forever in August 2012 when Saina Nehwal won an Olympic bronze medal and reached beyond the sporting community into superstardom.
“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.
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.
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
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?
I think it was written in the stars that her path led to sporting greatness – but why badminton?
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.
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.
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.