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Saina Nehwal has had a slow year. Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AP
Saina Nehwal has had a slow year. Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AP

Difficult year ahead for Saina Nehwal

This year saw inconsistent performances from the shuttle queen, who slipped from world No.3 to No.8but it also gave her the rare chance to lower her guard

So it wasn’t just the Chinese. In the year gone by, Saina Nehwal faced trouble from unexpected quarters: sudden attacks of cough, cold, a stomach upset, niggles to the ankle, knee and toe—these were the opponents she blamed for her inconsistent form over 2013.

As the year ends, India’s premier badminton player will probably not look back with fond memories. From the world’s No.3 at the beginning of 2013, she will end at No.8. From the high of an Olympic bronze and four major titles in 2012, Nehwal will have to reconcile with not having reached a single final this year. Having arrived on the international circuit as a teen prodigy and touched stratospheric levels of success over the last few seasons, her career graph tapered somewhat this year, causing much debate and concern.

But a career is not defined merely by rankings or titles, especially in Nehwal’s case. Even in a year of modest returns, her star continued to soar, in India at least, thanks to a confluence of circumstances that took the form of the inaugural Indian Badminton League (IBL).

Although the IBL offered a stunted version of badminton, it played to near full houses in six cities across the country, catapulting the sport into public consciousness. Nehwal’s rise has catalysed the growth of badminton in India, and the IBL gave her an opportunity to use her star appeal to broaden its horizons. The IBL’s icon was undoubtedly Nehwal, and she relished the part, heading her city team Hyderabad Hotshots in the conquest of the title. It was during the IBL that one got to see a very different side of her. As part of a team in a semi-serious competition, she was free of the enormous expectations that have tailed her in India. The difference between her performance at the Yonex Sunrise India Open superseries in April and the IBL in September was obvious—at the India Open, she crashed out in the second round to an unknown Japanese named Yui Hashimoto; at the IBL, she won every match she played.

More importantly, she finally appeared to relish the fun side of badminton. She smiled readily, was less defensive while fielding questions and was playful with her teammates court-side. Unlike conventional events, the IBL offered her the rare opportunity to lower her guard. It is often overlooked that she is just 23, and she has already played a decade of international badminton.

On the international circuit, however, Nehwal had an up-and-down year. She began the year strongly, with semi-final appearances at the Malaysian Open, Yonex All England Open superseries and Swiss Open, suffered a bitter early loss at the India Open—which she blamed on an injured toe—recovered with another semi-final at her favourite event, the Indonesia Open, and then hurtled to more early-round losses in the second half of the season. The most disappointing of these was at the Badminton World Federation (BWF) World Championships where, despite a big lead in the quarter-final against South Korea’s Bae Yeon Ju, she crashed out in straight games.

The noticeable aspect of Nehwal’s losses was that she was falling to modestly-ranked players. While in peak form she could only be beaten by other top 10 players, this year saw her lose to China’s Han Li (No.19) and Yu Sun (No.32), Japan’s Yui Hashimoto (No.28), Singapore’s Gu Juan (No.20) and Indonesia’s Lindaweni Fanetri (No.17). The main reason for her losses was slower speed. Deprived of her usual agility in court coverage, the Indian turned out to be a shadow of herself in several matches. But what explained this dip in speed?

After a second straight loss at the year-ending BWF World Superseries Finals, Nehwal told this writer she had caught a cold the previous day. “I was up all night coughing," she said. “I just couldn’t cover the court." Asked about her below-par year, she defended herself. “I’ve been losing in tough matches to good players," she said. “I’ve been unlucky with injuries. At the India Open I’d hurt my toe. At the World Championships I had an upset stomach. I’ve been playing a lot of matches; I need some rest."

Nehwal will have to gather herself up for a difficult year ahead, with the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, Uber Cup and World Championships lined up. In the year that saw a dip in her form, there was a corresponding rise in the quality of women’s singles. Countries such as Thailand, Japan, Chinese Taipei and South Korea are now competing with China for the top honours. Early-round matches are getting difficult to predict.

Nehwal will head into 2014 knowing that she will have to be in peak form at whatever tournament she chooses to play. Her abilities have never been in doubt; she will only have to rediscover that part of herself that was capable of magical qualities in punishing conditions.

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

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