Gold Coast, Australia: This was not Saina Nehwal of the old. Once in a fish-bowl, open to public scrutiny, this was a “new" Nehwal, looking fitter, fresher and more relaxed, and ready to push new boundaries at 28.
Moving faster, she is picking everything, closing rallies with smashes and setting up her rivals with moves that would do a chess maestro proud.
On Sunday, she capped a magnificent Commonwealth Games 2018 (CWG 2018) after playing 10 matches in 10 days—five in the team event and five in individual. She won gold in both.
Nehwal, starting with a 3-1 head-to-head edge over P.V. Sindhu, went for the jugular. She blunted Sindhu’s height by pushing her back and she herself rose like a phoenix to kill the bird when Sindhu erred even slightly. The net dribbles were a treat and the cross-court placements a delight. As Nehwal revealed, she had lost weight and was lighter on her feet.
Sindhu, meanwhile, got caught on the wrong foot often, and struggled as Nehwal raced to 11-6 and closed the first game 21-18. Sindhu did close a six-point gap to two, but still lost the game.
In the second, Sindhu got off to a fine start, but Nehwal stayed in touch. When the lead stretched to four, Nehwal clawed back.
A 64-shot rally that Nehwal won may have been one of the most crucial points in the second game as she came up to 18-19 and then reached game and match point. Sindhu saved one. On the second, she pushed a forehand wide and it was over, 21-18, 23-21.
The “new" Nehwal seems to have been minted sometime in mid-2017. A year earlier, the knee injury she carried to 2016 Rio Olympics saw her exit at the league stage. After a quarterfinal showing as an 18-year-old in 2008 in Beijing and a historic bronze in 2012 in London, this was a nightmare.
Coinciding with Nehwal’s debacle was the rise of a new star—P.V. Sindhu, who reached the Olympic final. The silver medallist headed home to a ticker-tape welcome and Saina headed to a hospital.
By the 2017 Glasgow World Championships, she did well to reach the semifinals, where Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara, who outlasted her in three energy sapping games.
On the last day at Glasgow, Nehwal revealed she was going back to training with coach Pullela Gopichand, whom she had left two years earlier. It paid off.
In January, en route to the finals of Indonesia Open, Nehwal beat China’s Chen Yufei (2017 World Championships bronze medallist), Chen Xiaoxin, Sindhu and Ratchanok Intanon, before losing to World No. 1 Tai Tzu Ying. Slowly but surely Nehwal was taking on more load and successfully, too.
All of this indicates that Nehwal still has a lot of steam left in her—maybe enough for a World Championship or two, an All England or two and maybe the 2020 Olympics, too.