GOLD COAST: Perhaps, no other athlete was under so much pressure as Saina Nehwal here at the Commonwealth Games. At 28, she is not growing any younger. The ageing limbs and countless injuries sustained over the years have been creating havoc in her body as well as mind. Titles were eluding her. Doubts crept in and started digging burrows in the citadel of confidence since the Rio Olympics, where she performed below-par due to injury.
Even before the Games began, she was embroiled in a needless controversy fomented by the Indian Olympic Association when her father was denied permission to stay in the Games Village. Add to this the predicament of failure against a young rival who is threatening to remove her from the throne she is accustomed to occupying. The rivalry itself is touchy, so touchy that there was no coach sitting in either Saina or PV Sindhu’s corner during the summit clash. There is only one Pullela Gopichand.
When the shuttle skidded outside the line in the tie-breaker during the final game, Saina let out a yell and held her clenched fists aloft. Eclectic emotions ran wild. She had beaten Sindhu in the final on Sunday and won her second gold at the Commonwealth Games here. Not always does she celebrate this animatedly. Perhaps it’s catharsis. She usually maintains a stoic silence on her travails on and off the court. Not today. “This means a lot to me,” she said. The pressure of rivalry only sweetened the victory. When you are on a comeback trail after injury, wins like this act as a catalyst.
When she finally hangs up the racquet and recalls her arduous journey, medals in the cabinet will remind her how greatness was achieved. This gold perhaps, might glitter brightest.
It’s a simple deduction in badminton — gather more points. In between, you play rallies, drop shots, smashes, lunge forward, push backward... expend energy, get stressed, waste time, change shuttles, grunt, sigh... The final had it all. In a game of equals, it boiled down to tactics and statistics – percentage of errors and winners. Saina bettered Sindhu in this aspect at the Carrara Sports Precinct to win 21-18, 23-21. Saina’s strategy was to engage Sindhu in long rallies. But Sindhu was not willing to concede, even though Saina held a 3-1 advantage in matches between the two before this one.
Saina was positioning herself with ease. There was grit in her face. The movement was fluid. Her body language was positive. “She wants to win badly,” said an Aussie lady in the stands. On the other hand, Sindhu looked as if she was struggling at times.
Game of who blinks first
Playing younger opponents is not easy. Though it was a straight-set win, the match had its moments. A 64-shot rally in the second game was insanely intense, symbolic of their see-sawing rivalry. Sindhu was 17-19 down. Each of them tried to outsmart the other with drop shots, net play, high lobs, smashes but both were retrieving everything. They were tiring but no one was giving up. Sindhu was the one to blink when she missed a shot she could have returned blindfolded any other time. Overcome by fatigue, both clutched their knees and started breathing heavily. There was thunderous applause. The momentum now rested with the senior player.
“Oh my god... dead, dead!” Saina tried to sew together thoughts about that incredible rally. “That shot just went off, you know. It was a clear shot and Sindhu was nowhere close to the shuttle. Even my legs were gone after that. If she could have got that last shot... you never know.” In Forest Gumpian language, Saina defined her win: “Just like that I won... Sometimes you don’t know how you get the match.”
The injury last year after the India Open kept Saina out for a while in July. “I didn’t know why it happened. I was having a situation with my hip, groin and knee so it was bad. I was not able to focus on matches. I wanted to consult somebody who was very good. So I went to Christopher Pedra in Mumbai. It’s working fine with me.”
It has been a remarkable journey since. Saina won bronze at the World Championships and did well at the Indonesia Open. But titles were eluding her. “When I played here, it was more about getting into shape. Focus was on strength and conditioning which I think Pedra really worked into me. He was like ‘I don’t know how you have played for three years in such a bad situation. You didn’t have any kind of strength in your body’.
“Gopi sir has given me a different programme and Sindhu a different one. He has actually worked on the right areas. His contribution is 60% and Pedra’s 40% and maybe a little bit from me (laughs).”
Pressure less on Sindhu
Saina usually doesn’t comment much on her rivalry with Sindhu. The fear of ageing reflected in her words when she candidly admitted how difficult it is to focus. “I think 100 things, especially in India. I wouldn’t say it happens in China and all, but in India there are a few things. First thing would be, ‘oh Saina has lost’, ‘oh Saina is becoming old’, ‘Saina should retire’, ‘Saina should do this,’ ‘Saina should do that.’ I think there are 100 things which would be written about me. For her it’s still okay because she is still coming up.”
Commenting about her father’s issue, Saina was almost in tears. Her father Harvir Singh was in the stands. “First thing is, I don’t mind fighting for my father anywhere. It’s not about what people have written. It’s not country first or dad first. It’s never been like that. Otherwise, I would have never won gold or any medal for my country. It’s only that ‘respect me, respect my parent.’ You have given accreditation. But he can’t come to the Games Village, he can’t come to see my matches... so what’s the point of him coming here?
“Two days I didn’t sleep and went for practice because I was worried about this situation. What else do you want me to go through? I can’t sit there and be patient all the time. I have to sleep. Roger Federer sleeps 10-12 hours. I was not even sleeping for half an hour.”
Saina managed to gather herself and begin her campaign — a testimony of her toughness. “It’s a stressful situation but there was no option. I had to fight it out. I always have the spirit of fighting and winning.”
This is only the beginning. There are more battles to be fought on court. Buoyed by the victory, she will embark on a new journey up the unending ladder of success.