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Nehwal has had a month’s training away from all distractions. Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images.
Nehwal has had a month’s training away from all distractions. Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images.

Saina Nehwal | An even chance

Nehwal's success in the All England Badminton Championships will depend on how well she moves on court

Twelve years after an Indian last won badminton’s most famous event, his protégé was taking the first steps to try and replicate the feat as the paper went to press on Wednesday night.

The Yonex All England Open Badminton Championships began on Tuesday, and a lot of the attention was on Saina Nehwal, who is attempting to repeat what her coach Pullela Gopi Chand did by winning in 2001. He did it when nobody expected him to; the years since have been good for Indian badminton, and a sizeable Indian contingent finds itself in Birmingham in the shadow of Nehwal, who has become a star in the badminton firmament.

India has always had a soft spot for the All England, even though the event is hardly the “Wimbledon of badminton" as it is thought of here. The All England is a modern sporting event, divested of all pretensions of tradition. There is no strawberry and cream, no jackets for the winners, no winners’ ball. There used to be, in fact, green jackets for the winners, but even that was dispensed with. Even during its 100th anniversary in 2010—an event most other sporting events would have celebrated wildly—the All England did little to mark the occasion.

Yet for India, the All England has always been a special event. India’s badminton players have been brought up on stories of what their predecessors did at the All England. Until 1977, it was considered the unofficial world championships, and with an Indian (Prakash Nath) reaching the final in 1947, during India’s debut at the event, it was understood that the All England would always be a marker for Indian badminton prowess.

We know of Prakash Nath as the first Indian to feature in an All England final; of George Lewis as the man who was deprived of a semi-final appearance due to a sleeping lineswoman (according to the version recounted by teammate Bala Ullal, Lewis was on match point in his quarter-final against eventual finalist Ooi Teik Hock in the 1949 edition, but a shot from his opponent that went out was called in by the lineswoman, who was startled out of her sleep when applause broke out); of Dinesh Khanna as the one who almost repeated what Nath had done, by reaching the semi-finals in 1966; of Prakash Padukone as the man who finally broke the myth of Indian sporting inability with his All England win in 1980; and finally, Gopi Chand, who was able to assert Indian presence in badminton once again with his title victory in 2001.

Nehwal is an inheritor of this legacy, whether she likes it or not. She is not a particularly interested student of badminton history. She has often talked of the All England as just another Superseries event, and in the modern context, that is true. The All England is part of the 12-event Superseries circuit, and it treats itself as one, without the nostalgia that Wimbledon peddles.

Nehwal’s best performance there was in the year of the 100th anniversary, in 2010. She reached the semi-finals before falling to the eventual winner, Tine Baun (nee Rasmussen). Since then, she has won several Superseries titles, an Olympic bronze, and the Commonwealth gold. She has come into the 2013 event as the second seed behind Olympic champion Li Xuerui.

How realistic are her chances?

With Nehwal, that is usually a question of one thing: her movement. The times she has been bounced out early are the times she has looked leaden-footed, as during her Maybank Malaysia Open match in January against Taipei prodigy Tai Tzu Ying. Nehwal’s movement is a sure indicator to her fitness: If she moves well, she has an even chance against anybody.

In the months following her Olympic medal, she has veered between the sublime (such as the 2012 Yonex Denmark Open, which she won) and the disappointing (Malaysia Open, a straight games loss to Tai Tzu Ying). The inconsistency was in part due to the commitments she had in attending functions, but with a month’s training away from all distractions, Nehwal might be close to her best.

Before the first round of matches began on Wednesday, going purely on the basis of current form and rankings, these are the possibilities.

On paper, Nehwal had a fairly easy opening round match on Wednesday against Thailand’s Sapsiree Taerattanachai, against whom she had a 4-0 record. The second round would be more tricky, with Nehwal likely to meet the Japanese girl Minatsu Mitani, who beat her in the Yonex French Open final in October. Mitani, like all Japanese women’s singles players, is a runner, capable of retrieving endlessly, and will test Nehwal’s resolve once again.

If she makes the quarters, her opponent could be China’s Wang Shixian, the sixth seed, who suffered a dip in form most of last year but redeemed herself towards the end. Nehwal is the favourite should this encounter happen. Tai Tzu Ying and Germany’s fourth-seeded Juliane Schenk are likely semi-final opponents. The favourite for the title is obviously the Olympic champion Li Xuerui, who has a 5-2 record over the Indian. What will enthuse Nehwal is that her toughest challenger, Wang Yihan, is in the same half as Li Xuerui, so she need worry only about one of them.

The number of contenders is a sign that women’s singles badminton is healthy. China dominate, but not overwhelmingly so. After all, the Olympic champion, Li Xuerui, fell to a young Japanese player in the quarter-finals of the Yonex German Open last week.

If Nehwal does manage to step past the minefield ahead of her, she will create history as the first Indian woman to win the All England. But then, with Nehwal, everything she has done until now has already created history.

Dev S. Sukumar is a Bangalore-based writer and the author of a biography of Prakash Padukone, Touch Play.

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