Featured

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/

Featured

Nozomi Okuhara: Racket Ready For Tokyo Glory?

“…everyone loves badminton…”

Who is this extraordinary woman who bows respectfully as she enters and leaves the court and who tweets humbly after a game that next time she will “try harder”?

Okuhara from above by Shutterstock.com

Nozomi Okuhara is part of an exceptional generation of Japanese shuttlers who have been challenging the Chinese domination of the game. She is one of the best Women’s Singles players in the world and a genuine hope for a medal at the Olympics in Tokyo 2020.

The badminton competition at the Tokyo Olympics is already being hotly anticipated all over Asia. Japan’s problem – or strength – is that they just have so many remarkable women players. Okuhara is part of an ambitious national team; there are lots of tournaments between now and the Olympic finals but the big prize, without doubt, will be the gold medal.

She is a defensive player known for her speed, agility and endurance, so this means her games are characterised by long rallies. Her rival in the semi-final at the 2019 Malaysian Open – Tai Tzu Ying – said of her

“Okuhara is a good opponent, she’s very durable”

She loves to draw her opponents into these extended exchanges and ironically, although she is tough enough to see them through to the end I think that against top opponents it can often be a weakness. During the semi-final against Tai Tzu Ying she was unsettled by TTY’s spontaneity. At times Tai just refused to get into the groove of a long probing rally – she just finished the point off and moved on – eventually winning the game. Paradoxically this cautious approach is very dangerous; if her accuracy ever fails she hands over control to her adversary. There are times when it’s frustrating to watch because with the opposition court at her mercy she often eschews a swift kill and opts to send back another clear.

Is she waiting for the perfect chance to punish her opponent? Morten Frost said of her that ” she needs to find ways to score points”. To her credit I believe that she has started taking courageous steps to add some brutality to her game. She has recently left her team – Nihon Unisys – and is now working with a personal coach, Shoji Sato. She has realised that her vision of being on that Tokyo podium needs a new approach if it’s going to come to pass. She has commented before that she needs to stay fit to succeed so this has to mean she will dismantle part of her game. Her defensive style must be harsh on her injury prone knees.

There are so many other outstanding women’s singles players who want that medal, any of the people in the top 10 could grab gold. Tai Tzu Ying must be favourite but what about Carolina Marin? Could she engineer a sensational comeback from injury to defend her Rio 2016 title? Well, it’s all speculation at this point. In interviews Okuhara inevitably talks of the joy and happiness that badminton brings her. She was Japan’s first women’s singles world champion but she recently said:

“The Olympic Games remains the most important target for me, especially as it will be held in Japan this time. It will be difficult but I want to win gold medal for the fans.”

Another Sensational Player From China: CHEN Yu Fei

Women’s singles in badminton is crammed with talent, we watch a game blessed with a golden generation of athletes from around the world. But there is one player recently who is always catching the eye and I think she may be on the brink of dominating the game for a while to come: Chen Yu Fei.

Photo credit: Hafiz Johari/Shutterstock.com

Since her success at the 2018 Fuzhou Chinese Open, Chen has been on an upward trajectory. I watched her play in the final at the All England Open this year and went to the game fully expecting Tai Tzu Ying to play at her imperious best and be crowned queen of the court. Things turned out a lot differently to that…

Shivani Naik from the Indian Express says that Chen neutralised Tai in that match and I think that analysis is spot on. We all watch Tai and expect her to conquer opponents through a mix of fabulous deception and Zen-like calm. Chen refused to stand admiringly on the other side of the net and rejected the opportunity to be beaten. Tai was made to run around and there were too many times when she was scrambling for the shuttle. She just could not dominate in her usual way.

Video courtesy of Badminton England


Chen looks very fit – she is simultaneously springy and unyielding – and there is a grit to her make up. She is obstinate, she hustles, she doesn’t give up, she declines defeat. Every shot her opponent tries is retrieved. Not just that, she defends relentlessly and then switches to attack, pushing back on her rival. She doesn’t make many mistakes, and although it sounds obvious, it is a huge advantage in any match. This must be exhausting to play against.

I think she is great at the net. Although not the tallest at 171cm she has a great reach and lunges well to get to the shuttle. Unlike P V Sindhu she doesn’t have particularly steep smashes in her armour, nor does she have a long-legged stride to cover the court. What she does have is fast reactions and confidence in her ability so she often seems to bulldoze to victory.

So, what does the future hold for the kid who took up badminton because she was naughty? Well, Chen has a formidable team behind her and arguably the best coaching resources in the world are in China; after she won at the All England this year she was quick to acknowledge the people whose know-how helped her. She has mentioned before that her ambition is to “see the Chinese flag rising” so I’m certain that she is eyeing Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020 as well as the top titles on the BWF tour. There’s lots of competition in the women’s game these days so it won’t be easy but who is going to beat her?