First, a confession – I didn’t watch the match today between Saina and Selvaduray Kisona. However, I want to award my ‘Player of the Day’ accolade to the Indian player because the last 24 hours must really have tested her resolve to get out on court and compete, let alone win.
The shocking news yesterday that two Indian players had tested positive for Covid made headlines worldwide. Her millions of fans were dismayed at the news that one of them was Saina and that her opponent had been awarded a walkover.
What a difference 24 hours has made. Gossip started leaking out that she had been retested and was now confirmed ‘negative’. Would she be allowed to reenter the competition? Was she OK?
She is a player who has a steely core; we’ve seen this throughout her career. Late yesterday when we got the news that she’d been reinstated it was also revealed that she had been stuck at the hospital for 10 hours. Today, in the last game of the session, having been shifted onto Ct 3 at short notice she won in two sets 21-15, 21-15.
I can’t report that her fitness is back to its best, or that niggling injuries are healed. But I’m thrilled to tell you that there can be no questions about the mental resilience and grit of this athlete. Congratulations Saina!
Honourable mentions today go to Daren LIEW who shocked Anders Antonsen by dumping him out of the tournament in two sets and Ratchanok Intanon who looked sharp and fit in her victory over YEO.
Who will be the next Indian badminton player to win a medal at the Olympics? The current World Champion, and Silver medallist from Rio 2016, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu must have high hopes. Sindhu has a reputation as a ‘big tournament player’; the bigger the stage, the bigger the prize. This is a player who motivates herself by focussing on the major titles, the ones that everyone wants to win.
When she is performing to the best of her ability, she is unstoppable. There are times when her attacking power is breath-taking. Nevertheless, her erratic form can be very frustrating for her supporters. Playing singles can be a lonely game. It requires strong self-belief. Sometimes when she plays her confidence seems a little unsteady. She can look quite vulnerable, but this should be an area that her coach will help with. Even when playing alone on the court there should always be someone at her side during the mid-game break offering encouragement and suggestions.
We all know by now that Tokyo 2020 has become Tokyo 2021. Coach Agus Dwi Santoso was appointed to the national coaching team in February and the unexpected extra months could give him and the players chance to build their training routines rather than be drawn into increasingly desperate firefighting. The Indonesian has a great pedigree and has recently been working in Thailand with players like Busanan and Kantaphon. It is a key moment for Indian badminton. Since Coach Kim left, Sindhu’s form has been inconsistent and the other top players seem to be drifting with time running out for qualification. With a fresh approach and a clear vision they may still be able to turn things around.
Sindhu is a fantastic player; no-one flukes winning a World Championship final. The fundamental strategy in singles is about movement. At her best, Sindhu’s aggression has its foundation in her ability to control the rally by moving her foe around the court and provoking a weak shot. Her technique and strength mean that she already hits the shuttle fiercely; her stature allows her to find steep angles. This gives less time to the opponent on the other side of the net. Sindhu follows up her smash very swiftly – often with a net kill to bury any weak return. This is a wonderful way to keep pressure high and provoke mistakes.
Her offensive game is not simply based on smashes. Her fast, flat clears (very different to the loopy kind we all see at local club nights), and punched drives are a good way to keep the momentum of the match on her side. It’s dangerous to attempt to gain recovery time by clearing over her head; a slight misjudgement and a savage riposte is the result.
Her long stride and reach give her good court coverage but she can look a little susceptible when the tables are turned and she is forced to defend the corners. Getting trapped by a sequence of ‘over’ reaching can undermine her poise. The disadvantage of a high centre of gravity is the risk to stability. I think this is a weakness that has been exploited in the past but has improved. People often claim that tall players lack agility and balance but this is a skill that can be developed in the gym and it’s obvious this is an area that has been worked upon.
If Sindhu plays with conviction, she has no-one to fear. Her precision and power make her invincible since her attacking game is so hard to defuse. She has extra time now to prepare for Tokyo and must use it to her advantage. She has a great chance of getting on that Olympic podium and upgrading her 2016 Silver to a 2021 Gold.
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 2019 she has had to cope with a sequence of injuries which will have affected her training and so her fluency on court. As she recovered her fitness the world went into Covid lockdown and numerous tournaments were cancelled. In the end events out of her control have meant that she was not able to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
Saina: The First
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.
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
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.