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Swimming against the tide

Written by Shivani Naik
| Mumbai |
Published:January 23, 2017 1:57 am


Saina Nehwal, Saina Nehwal win, Saina Nehwal vs Pornpawee Chochuwong, Pornpawee Chochuwong, Malaysian Masters Grand Prix, Saina vs Chochuwong, Malaysia Masters, Badminton news, Badminton India, India news, sports news Saina Nehwal reacts after winning the Malaysian GP Gold final on Sunday. AP

You never forget how to swim, they say. Harvir Singh was suddenly not so sure about this the day Saina Nehwal casually informed him that she intended to continue her post-surgery rehabilitation in the pool. He had seen her run and jump fearlessly into a 5-foot pool as a toddler when she paddled away strapped to floats. But it had been a while since she’d even lapped the breadth of a 25m, and he was worried. Convinced of the benefits of training in water to avoid a recurrence or any fresh injury, Saina had made up her mind. She took the plunge.

Like she jumped back on the circuit, with her parents and coach Vimal Kumar wondering if it was a tad too soon after her knee operation. It’s less than five months since that quick decision to resume swimming, and just her third month on the competitive court, and the 26-year-old has returned to a podium, winning the Malaysian Masters Grand Prix Gold title with a tough 22-20, 22-20 win — a first step towards reclaiming her spot amongst the world’s top contenders.

Her opponent Pornpawee Chochuwong was a tall Thai — a junior World Championship finalist, celebrating her 19th on Sunday. Overhead deception is a known Thai trait, but it can unsettle you even when you come across it the dozenth time; the angled smashes coming from a contorted opponent’s backhand side, but which are actually hit with the assurance of the forehand high above the ear. And Saina trailed by a good 6 points in the opener, as clouds gathered over her ability to put it across the talented player.

Nehwal has been practicing the high-risk deceptive clears extensively in training, and they are a tricky proposition if you can’t pick and choose the precise timing during the rally. The Indian insisted on perfecting them in a final of a tournament, and promptly lagged behind as the Thai ran up a good lead with her cross court smashes.

Saina has her overheads and an under-rated net game too, but both took time in fetching her points, though the net rescued her from drifting off further. She would level for the first time at 19-all after varying her strokes and running Chochuwong ragged to claim the opener. In the second, Saina looked more in control at the net — including a low hairpin net winner at 17-13 and some smart pushes to stay ahead.

Anxiety showed up a good six months after her exit from Rio when at 18-16 she realised she was hurrying towards a desperate title win, rather than getting the job calmly done. She would literally shake her neck and slap her head twice to regain focus as the tiring Thai stretched it to 20-20. The last two points were as much experience, as Saina Nehwal’s insistence on not making fatal errors.

The smile was back, though the speed, her movements, her tactics in mixing crosscourt smashes with down the lines and the drops and sharpness in shot selection should duly follow in coming months. Accustomed to 10 Super Series titles, a World Championship silver and an All England final, the 8th Grand Prix (a lower rung) top spot might not keep her satiated enough.

But here’s what all Saina did since the doomed day when she went out of Rio to a little known Ukrainian: she started swimming again, she worked with a 24×7 resident physio after OGQ chipped in with the salaries, at her home, she declared she would start playing in China (giving her coach and sponsors some sleepless nights), got them to admit that her legendary stubbornness was stronger than her impetuosity / stupidity in rushing back and she also turned up at an OGQ event last month telling young athletes that giving up was never an option.

Battling criticism

Off court, she had battled criticism over her Rio showing, grinned through the immediate post-surgery pain, gotten into a diet and training regimen from Day Minus-One of surgery, warded off Twitter barbs, acknowledged to her father that Sindhu was a better player at this point (“She said Sindhu has the bigger medal at Olympics than me, Papa,” father Harveer narrates), and drag him to a Bollywood time-travel film as he nitpicked on the back-and-forth storyline, and muttered endlessly as Saina gleefully teased him about getting old.

She found time between scoring challenging wins against two whippy Indonesians to order a birthday cake, though she conceded she’d mixed up the dates — given she was in the middle of a title conquest. And a month ago, she had joked to Siril Verma, a promising junior who she used to spar with when he was a kid that she’d try beating him again – never mind he’d shot up a foot taller since that time. And finally she promised herself that she would try becoming the world’s best once more, because second-best didn’t suit her.

On court, there was a first round loss at China, a brief stepping out of the Top 10, losses in quarters at the lesser grade Macau, and finally the low-key PBL.

She had Carolina Marin on the ropes in the opener at Hyderabad, played two swell home tie and trump matches at Lucknow, and borrowed an extra day’s time to get ready for the Sindhu face-off in a knockout at Delhi.

She would lose in straight sets, but Siri Fort appreciated the effort of a champ who had given them a memorable Commonwealth Games gold six years ago. Badminton has sped up drastically with the emergence of Marin and Sindhu who play at a frenzied pace, and Nehwal would know that Malaysia was strictly two gears short of what’ll come at her in March at All England.

Still, India was coming off a year when its top two wrestling studs had made evading a face-off one depressing dark art. Sindhu vs Saina was more than just a PBL tie. It ended with two dignified rivals letting their games do the talking.

Nehwal would leave for Malaysia soon after with coach Umendra Rana and physio Arvind Nigam, with her erstwhile dominance still elusive. A year ago, the Malaysian Masters would’ve been just a stat – she might have flipped past it when checking the schedule even. But she leapt at the low hanging fruit – crushing a very talented Thai (both belong to the Super Series level) in the process. There’s that one other thing Saina Nehwal hadn’t forgotten besides knowing to swim — it was how to win.

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Swimming against the tide