Make no mistake, China is by far the most dominant country in the sport of Badminton. Their dominance rises far above the fact that 5 out of the top 10 Women’s Single Ranking spots in the world belong to their players. Their system, backed unconditionally by their government, to churn out gold medalists and Champions in a sport that they feel they should own- is unparalleled and designed with top investment and no stone left unturned.
When you watch a game of Badminton, invariably, you will look for a Chinese player on court. The world seems to agree that Asia is a synonym for China in this sport.
Hence, it seems odd to see an Indian player in the top 5- consistently, over the last four years. To expect that an Indian system would be structured around anything but cricket is absurd and right, so it looks all the more bizarre.
To many, Saina Nehwal is what Sania Mirza should have been. She hit her straps running, at an early age, and after the unexpected spurt, it was only a matter of time before her Indian genes kicked in. But she went on and on, and it has been four years at the top now, continuously proving to be sort of a bogey player for the audacious Chinese group. Her career has taken on a story only third to the rise of Sachin Tendulkar and Vishy Anand, and who’s to say she wouldn’t surpass them by the end of her career. She is only 21, and she has had enough ups and downs to teach her the value of losing, and the method of winning.
On June 17th, 2012, she added yet another glorious chapter to her young career. Still ranked 5 in the world, after a very Sania-like 2011, Saina is back to where she belongs. For two consecutive weeks, right before the Olympics, she has been terrorizing ‘Asian’ players- first in Thailand, and then at her favorite hunting ground- Malaysia. Few expect her mentor Gopichand may have expected this sudden burst to form, after a lackluster 18 months. Not to say she wasn’t winning anything, but she has set herself high standards, and falling short of defending any title is a crime for her.
What is heartwarming to see is not the fact that she won her third title year in four years, or that it is her first Premier series title, but that she did it the hard way. She holds a losing record to 6 out of the top 7 Chinese players, and she knows that she must invariably beat atleast one of them to reach a final, or two of them to win it.
That is like asking Federer to beat Nadal twice every tournament to add to his tally of titles. It is like asking Nadal to remodel his entire game to beat Djokovic, and then hope that he survives against the rest of the field. It is THAT hard.
This time, her victim was no other than Li Xuerui- World Number 3, but the best player in the world in 2012. The reigning All-England, Asian and Indian Champion. This was her fifth straight final, after topping players like Wang Yihan (Number One) and Wang Xin (Number Two) over the last few months. It has been an onslaught this year, and another final meant that she was the woman to beat at London. Against Saina, she had not lost for two years. Everything seemed fine, after a dominant first game, but then Saina pulled out a side of her that seems to be her new trademark. Saving two match points in the final game is phenomenal, especially with so much on the line. A loss could have been sapping for Saina, and she’d have wondered if she was good enough to break the noodle. 21-19 in the final game, and Saina had her third title of 2012. In March, she had beaten then-World Number 2 Wang Shixian in the Swiss Open Final, to signal the proverbial change of tide.
Saina, who seems to have been training mentally as much as physically, has programmed herself to beat the Chinese, maybe not as consistently as she likes, but enough to make a statement. And that, automatically, should mean a title win- and she MUST not fall to anyone else after beating the best. That way, the Chinese will know that she still exists, and the others will fear her as the only player capable of beating them.
But, in 2011, Saina fell into a trap of her own. She began to lose to players seeded much lower than her. Her obsession of beating the very best made her forget that the rest of the field was not to be underestimated or forgotten. Her cause wasn’t helped by injuries and viral fevers, but that is a part and parcel of an athlete’s life. To remain in the top 10 was still quite an achievement, after losing in the quarters of the Thailand Open, and the second round of the Singapore Super Series.
Her final loss to World No. 1 Wang Yihan (against whom she is yet to win a match) in the Indonesian Super Series, meant that it would be her first loss in 3 years at the tournament. She then endured a slew of early losses to every possible Chinese player, as well as players like Juliane Schenk of Germany and Tine Baun of Denmark. China, Japan, Denmark, French, Hong Kong, Malaysia- none of these tournaments let her cross the final frontier, and the Chinese started to believe that she may have been a flash in the pan. They began to concentrate on other serious contenders like the upcoming Ratchanok Inthanon of Thailand, Junior World Champion and a threat to their legacy.
But at the BWF Super Series Masters Finals, the season-ending event that has the top 8 players competing for the biggest purse on the tour, Saina defied form and created history by reaching the final. She beat Tina Baun in the semis, and went on to lose to Yihan again in the finals, in 3 well-contested sets. Nevertheless, it meant that she was still a contender, and her next season (with the Olympics) would be her most important.
In 2008, the year that marked her arrival onto the World Stage, Saina Nehwal was India’s greatest hope of winning a medal at the Olympic Games. She was to be named the most promising player of the year later, and her form had made an entire country forget about Lee-Hesh and Sania altogether. Her victory over Wang Chen of Hong Kong was a massive boost, and meant that she needed just a win to assure herself of atleast a bronze medal.
But then came her heartbreaking unexpected loss to Maria Kristin Yulianti, World Number 16. Saina was favorite, and she learned the hard way, that beating the Chinese must often be followed up with a solid, basic display of Badminton, no matter which tournament it is. In Tennis terms, it is like holding a service game after breaking Nadal, which is often the toughest game of the set.
The London Olympics in 2012 will see an older, wiser Saina (only 22 still), confident and assured enough to scare the Chinese contingent. She is yet to beat the World’s top player, and that could mean only one thing: Saina’s destiny may lie in London. Nothing could be more brutal than handing Yihan a loss at the World’s biggest stage, in a tournament that she is overwhelming favorite once again.
A Gold medal, and Saina’s Sawari will only have begun.