A federation that she doesn’t vivaciously correspond with, senior citizens of the sport and of administration she doesn’t kowtow to, fellow players she’s always remained aloof as that’s her core nature, fans who crinkle their noses at her selfie-posting indulgence and detractors who are annoyed by her confounding political immersions. Nehwal has learnt to park herself at the T and scatter opponents’ wits from across the court with her canny flicked angles when she plays badminton. But it has dawned upon her in the last few months just how much of a lonesome corner she has driven herself into, by not sticking to the shrinking-flower role of a fading former star, who’s supposed to be humbled by the ageing of her body and diminishing of her on-court prowess.
The celebratory comeback from down in the dumps has come and gone – with the World Championship bronze in 2017 and Asian Games medal in 2018. Now she’s expected to wither away and make way for younger talent, fresher legs. The small problem is she still digs a good scrap in badminton – the only thing she’s monkishly known – and traverses the globe, searching for that return to winning over Top Tenners. Why the world could possibly have a problem with that, is a question that boggles her – given she’s the one putting in the quiet hours in rehab, strapping on tape on her knees like a child’s wall scribbles and then stepping on the court to toy around – in the few points she can – with the new Chinese and Japanese. The old Chinese and Japanese – her contemporaries, are a few seasons into their retirement. But Saina Nehwal refuses to go away gently into the night. Even after she’s told in the volunteer terms, the country doesn’t need her services at the Commonwealth Games.
It’s all of these things that bring into stark relief what husband-coach calls “backlog of losses and emotion” when she’s standing there at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, staring at a 20-18 advantage in quarters of the decider. Aya Ohori isn’t a particularly scary southpaw, though she can ramp up the pace of rallies and is attempting to move Nehwal front and back corners, laterally. But the Indian has kept her head, and is standing on the 19-16 threshold of the decider, despite losing the opening set.
Nothing lacking physically in getting to 20-18 against an opponent, six years her junior, until that moment. Nor a tactical blunder that’s waiting to catch up with her. There’s nothing to explain the next four points Ohori scythes away at, while Nehwal crumbles in front of bemused, befuddled eyes in the stadium and on television. Nothing save the backlog of emotion – of a former World No 1 who fights just as hard, has in fact rounded off a previously uni-dimensional game, and is on the cusp of a semifinal she badly craves. It’s the complete annihilation of confidence which once gleamed with such self-assurance that a more famous southpaw than Ohori, Carolina Marin, used to need to gulp down a glug in the throat before she took the court against her. It’s the shattering of a self-belief borne out of the humbling, cold-shouldering, ghosting of those she assumed as her jigsaw pieces, Kashyap reckons.
Ohori played out of her skin in closing out the 21-13, 15-21, 22-20 match and fell to the floor in relief. Saina Nehwal stood there, gulping down her emotion, as yet another 20-19 situation left her on the dire side of the bargain. It’s the 13th time in 15 instances of 20-19 or 22-21, over the last three years, that Saina Nehwal has tasted such a defeat.
That she gets herself into that position to fight – sometimes holding match points, and frittering them, at others giving it her all but falling in the fight nevertheless in vain – is a testimony to Nehwal’s uncrumbling desire to play and win. The crumbled confidence though, is what makes the headlines and social media updates.
Pin-point execution of strategy, and a body that could back her gameplan of parrying away two distinct left-handed games – He Bingjiao being wholly different in her strokes and style from Ohori – defined the two near hour-long contests.
Indonesian badminton twitter, the chattiest, most observant in the world, was abuzz on Thursday after Nehwal beat He Bingjiao about the star of ‘2008 vintage’ (when she played at the Beijing Olympics), marvelling at how despite her slow footwork, she was still having one right go at the top Chinese. 2008 is what Indonesians associate with their adored doubles legend Hendra Setiawan – one half of Daddies. Nehwal who made a hat-trick of finals at the Indonesia Open is quite a favourite at the hallowed Istora stadium, but the Jiao win brought a flutter of much younger fans, looking her up on results from a decade ago.
So where’s her game at, really? Saina Nehwal can trouble the best in the world on the sheer strength of her mental aggression and court composure. The smash kill isn’t too shabby in fast shuttle courts. She’s played a handful of three setters, and doesn’t back off from a decider scrap if things reach 15-all.
She hasn’t won often from 20-19 though. Still reeling from how she was treated by a country that was too eager to cast her away, and move on (to no-one knows which next player), maybe the confidence crisis has left an irreparable crack in the mirror. Nehwal and Kashyap believe she can still contend for title, and there’s 60 percent she can improve. She still thinks she can run PV Sindhu close in the delicious domestic rivalry. The door slammed on her face – you can still hear her persistent knocks. Knowing Saina Nehwal, she would want to kick it open, rather than wait for anyone to politely invite her in. Even the best teachers know that particular quality can’t be taught.