From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.32 :: NO.02 :: Jan. 10, 2009

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BADMINTON / INTERVIEW/SAINA NEHWAL

‘Ready for any challenge’

After a reasonably successful 2008, Saina Nehwal is hoping to continue her good run this year. But she will be under pressure. “It is going to be very hard. But the fact that I have set a fresh target for myself — to break into the top five in the world — should only spur me on,” she says in a chat with V. V. Subrahmanyam.

NAGARA GOPAL

Saina Nehwal, who had a dream run in 2008 and was quite rightly named the ‘Most Promising Player of 2008’ by the Badminton World Federation, is aware of the huge pressures involved in sustaining her excellence as she steps into 2009 with fresh targets. The world No. 10 — she is the first Indian woman to be ranked so high — confessed that she will be under pressure.

“It is going to be very hard. But the fact that I have set a fresh target for myself — to break into the top five in the world — should only spur me on,” said Saina as she prepared for the big events in Malaysia and Korea later this month. “I must confess that there is very little to choose amongst the top 10 in the world. Anyone can beat anyone on a given day. So, you have to be consistent right through and there is no scope for any slackness,” she said.

It is not that the 18-year-old champion from Hyderabad is so naïve to ignore the importance of world rankings even as she embarks on another grinding season. “Well, these things and the BWF award do matter a lot. They inspire you to aim bigger and I am definitely privileged to be named one (Most Promising Player of 2008),” said Saina.

The other day, when someone addressed her as ‘Sania’, she corrected him quickly saying: “Are yaar, I achieved something which merits you to recognise me as Saina.”

Why not? Saina broke away from the rest of the sporting crowd from her State and is keen to ensure herself a place in history.

The BWF recognition was a big moment for this young champion. “One of my dreams has come true. At the start of 2008 my target was to break into the top 25. But the way things have gone, it is really pleasing,” said Saina.

By entering the semifinals of the World Super Series in Kuala Lumpur — another first by an Indian woman — Saina justified the BWF honour. “Initially, I felt like a kid out there in the Super Series. But when I recorded two wins against Hongyan Pi of France (21-18, 21-13) and then downed World No. 11, Mew Choo Wong of Malaysia (21-10, 17-21, 21-16) in one day to enter the semifinals, I felt as if I was the No. 1 player in the world. My confidence is clearly on a high. Now, I can take on the best in the business with a lot more comfort,” Saina pointed out.

“The loss to World No. 6 Chen Wang of Hong Kong in the semifinal (21-15, 14-21, 16-21) was definitely disappointing, but not demoralising. For, I did prove a point or two in winning a semifinal berth,” she said. “Now, there is no point in making a first round or a second round appearance. You have to be consistent at the highest level over a long period of time to achieve your new goals.”

Saina also admitted that it is not going to be easy for her any more in international events. “Definitely, there are many more to achieve like winning the All England Championship and the World Championship (to be held in Hyderabad) next year. I know the route to these big events is dotted with huge hurdles but I am more confident,” she said.

Saina is always looking to improve her game. According to her, she needs to improve her backhand. “This is an area of concern. Or else, the other girls will easily catch up with me,” she admitted.

If the 2008 Beijing Olympics quarterfinal appearance pushed her into the big league, Saina confirmed her growing stature with her incredible victory in the Yonex Chinese Taipei Grand Prix Gold Championship where she defeated Malaysian Li Ya Lydia Cheah 21-7, 21-19 in the final. She then clinched the women’s singles title in the third Commonwealth Youth Games, though not in an emphatic manner, as she scraped past her 16-year-old state-mate and practice partner Sikki Reddy 23-21, 22-20 in the final.

Following the CYG singles gold, Saina expectedly made short work of her opponents in the Junior World Championship in Pune to bag the title.

MOHAMMED YOUSUF

The winning feeling... Saina Nehwal with the gold medal she won at the Chinese Taipei Grand Prix. To her right is the chief National coach Pullela Gopi Chand.

“I don’t think the World juniors was an easy event given the fact that I have been doing well in the women’s circuit of late. Each event has its own significance and value. And you have to play to the best of your ability to win any tournament,” Saina explained.

Saina, who is an officer with BPCL, said she preferred to compete in the Asian Circuit than the European one. Some of the top players of world badminton hail from Asia and they make it a point to compete regularly in this circuit. “This is not the case with the European Circuit which is comparatively much easier in terms of competition,” she said.

“Definitely, after winning the Chinese Taipei Grand Prix and the semifinal appearance in the China Masters Open besides the Beijing Olympics showing, my confidence level is certainly high,” said Saina.

“Well, now there is no question of feeling tense anymore before a match. I am ready for any challenge,” she asserted.

When Saina failed to live up to her expectations after her impressive victory in the 2006 Philippines Open, serious doubts were raised about her potential. And just when the doubting Thomases were ready to pose serious questions about her ability to rise to the big occasion, Saina, thanks to her training-cum-exposure stint in the Asian Circuit at the initiative of her mentor and former All England champion, Pullela Gopi Chand, came back a vastly improved player just before the Beijing Games.

“By all means, that loss in the quarterfinal (at the Olympics) will haunt me for the next four years. It is very difficult for me to forget it. I was so close to victory. I should have wrapped it up,” Saina said.

And as if to prove her Beijing performance was no flash in the pan, Saina, in her very first event after the Olympics, scripted a memorable moment in Taiwan. The Taipei title, according to Saina, was special. “From the technical point of view, I was able to sustain the desired level of excellence in crunch times in some of the important matches,” she said.

“Saina is capable of achieving bigger results. That should not be a big problem given the mood she is in and the way she is playing,” said Gopi Chand.

What has really pleased him is the manner in which his most famous trainee is shaping up at the critical phase of her career. “This is the time when the best of talent drifts away for want of focus. Thankfully, she seems to be more focussed than before,” he added.

With the backing of Mittal Foundation and Gopi Chand going all out to channel her abundant talent, Saina can only look one way — ahead.



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