Never before in the history of the India Open had Saina Nehwal come into the tournament as a rank outsider, wondering how long she could last in the competition.
This mindset was evident when she interacted with the media after advancing to the second round this week after Czech Republic’s Tereza Svabikova retired hurt in the second game, having lost the first. Saina’s first reaction was that she was happy to get to play another match as she was still recovering from a long-term injury and needed matches under her belt before she started feeling confident about herself.
Saina lost the next round against Malvika Bansod, her first reversal against any Indian player in a competitive match who does not answer to the name PV Sindhu in over a decade. And more than the loss, it was the 21-17, 21-9 score-line that once again started the talk among badminton fans as to whether the London Olympics bronze medallist should call time on her illustrious career and why the Badminton Association of India should consider next-generation players for Commonwealth and Asian Games.
Versions of this argument have been made by fans and even some experts over the last few years as Saina hasn’t won a title on the BWF tour since her Indonesia Masters triumph in January 2019.
For the better part of the last two years, she has been troubled by a spate of injuries that saw her lose matches against unheralded opponents and even concede a few of them midway. She has reached just one semi-final in the last two years and also failed to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics last year.
A knee injury at the French Open in October 2021 saw her withdraw from the World Championships in December and the Yonex-Sunrise India Open 2022 was her first competitive event since then.
Those who saw the matches would vouch for Saina’s argument. Despite the lack of overall fitness, she managed to make life difficult for Malvika in the opening game, and had she been at even 75% fitness, the former champion would have been the favourite for victory against her Indian counterpart.
As things stand in Indian badminton, especially the level of the second-rung women’s singles players, an injury-free Saina is still a better bet for medals in multi-discipline events like the CWG and can still pull off a few upsets against top-ranked players on the BWF circuit.
With the knee holding up and the anxiety of returning from a long-injury layoff taken care of, Saina may opt not to play the Syed Modi Open and the Odisha Open, which she has entered, and focus on building herself for the arduous year ahead.
The former world No. 1 is 31 and despite the pounding her body has taken over the last 15 years on the international circuit, she is otherwise in good physical shape. It is the spate of injuries since the 2016 Rio Olympics disaster that has proved to be her undoing.
In the last few years, she tried to play as many events, chasing ranking points so that she could make it to the Tokyo Games. It only aggravated her injuries and created more problems for her.
Saina had started practising just over a fortnight before the start of the competition and was herself not sure how her knee would hold after recovering from a cartilage tear and issues with her patella.
She was clearly tentative in her opening match against Svabikova while lunging to pick the drops on her forehand side but managed to pull out the opening game with a smart strategy of playing flatter rallies.
In the second round against Malvika, Saina did manage to push herself a lot more in the second half of the opening game as she fought back from a 7-15 deficit to close the gap at 16-18 before losing that game. During that period, she constantly kept her opponent on the backcourt and controlled the rallies till she got an opportunity to go for the kill.
Had she won that game, Saina could have gone for the jugular in the second but at just 50-60% of overall fitness, she only focused on prolonging the inevitable as she ran out of steam.
But despite the result, Saina looked happy and that had a lot to do with the way her knee held up in the two matches. “I could not work much on my physical fitness (before coming here) but I am happy that the body could play those two matches. I didn’t have to give up because of my groin or my knee and I could take those tough shots when Malvika was playing close drops and good tosses.
“I came here to see where I stand (before playing bigger events). I feel the body is good but the fitness levels need to be better,” she explained.
She believes that if she could get 4-5 uninterrupted weeks for quality training, there is no reason for her to start hitting the ground running by March.
With those ranking concerns out of her way, Saina now has the opportunity to pick and choose her competitions in the next few months, and slowly, but surely, build her knees and legs to ensure that she is at least competitive against the big guns.
That would also do a world of good for her confidence, something that can make a difference between winning and losing close matches.
Given Saina’s mental framework, she is not someone who likes to play tournaments just for the sake of playing and wants to win every time she steps on that badminton court. Winning consistently would definitely be an uphill task and she may not be a title contender in major tournaments anymore but if she could pick and choose her battles and take care of her body then there is no reason to believe that the only Indian with 10 Superseries or equivalent titles cannot prolong her career for another couple of years.
All we can do is keep our fingers crossed.