A lot has been written about her the past year — performance on court, technique, fitness levels, recurring injuries… So when she ended 2013 without a win, critics slammed her and ‘fans' started speaking about the budding rivalry with PV Sindhu, which didn't go down well with her. But starting the year with a bang — a win after 15 months, in the Indian Open GP Gold against Sindhu — Saina Nehwal proved her exploits on court were far from over.
Ask the 24-year-old how she deals with all that is written about her, the London Olympic Games bronze medallist brushes it off with a smile. Comfortably ensconced in the hotel lobby after an extensive workout session, Saina is matter-of-fact. "Look, you can't do anything about what people write. It's better to give vent to anger in practice sessions," says Saina, taking a deep breath.
Saina's sterling performance in the Uber Cup apart, the world No 8 who came into limelight in 2006 winning the Philippines Open, is wary of people forgetting her achievements. Winner of the Commonwealth Games gold in 2010, six Super Series victories and the London Olympic bronze, Saina says unexpected setbacks should be viewed the same way as sterling victories.
"In 2011, I was passing through a bad phase. Then, 2012 happened and everything was forgotten. Again, people started finding faults in my game last year... What I don't understand is why people expect me to win every tournament I play. It's not possible!
"It's funny when people said in January I'd won after ages. Hello! I've been playing quarters and semis all year. Injuries happened and I was trying to find a way around it. I mean, not even Serena Williams can win every time she takes to the court!" says the ardent Roger Federer fan.
"It's me alone against 10 Chinese girls. With Thailand and Japan too emerging strong, it feels like an army coming out of every country. I have to study each and everyone's game a 100 times while my opponents have to just watch my game."
Her turquoise jersey shimmering in the afternoon sun, Saina says she didn't play in the prestigious Asian Badminton Championships in order to get ready for the Uber Cup at home. "Only I know how hard I've practiced these four weeks," she laughs.
Highs and lows
After the high of the Olympic medal and the ensuing Denmark Open win, something happened and Saina was not her usual self on court. "Personally, I was even more motivated after London. But when things go wrong physically, you can't do anything. There was a stage where I could have become world No 1 (she was ranked 2 then) but the toe injury laid me low at the wrong time. Even if there are phases when I am not performing well, it doesn't matter as long as I am performing in events like the Commonwealth, Asian Games or the Olympics."
In this day and age, when the Chinese enjoy a vice-like grip on badminton, Saina says her none-too-impressive record against Wang Yihan — the Indian has lost eight out of nine outings against the Chinese — is because of the latter's deceptive game. "If you look at the records, no player has beaten Wang consistently. Her game is very difficult to read. She's sharp, catches the shuttle very high...and then during rallies, she'll play a shot which will really irritate you. You lose focus and she will demolish you. Wang's game is a mixture of singles and doubles if I can call it that," says Saina. "Even if you have got past Li Xuerui (world No 1 and current Olympic champion), you'll have Shixian Wang and (Yihan) Wang right behind waiting."
The rigours of playing badminton all year round, Saina feels, is also the reason why one person cannot dominate the scene for long periods. "Wang did that in 2009 but it's not easy. Today you see everyone playing with tapes... one needs to be physically very sound to play at the top level," feels Saina. "In tennis you have four Grand Slams, in badminton there are almost 100."
But Saina is happy that from 2015 onwards, players will get two months to recover before the season. "It's a good move. It becomes harder to play nonstop, more so with every Chinese town waiting to send 5000 players to the team. Every tournament becomes like the Chinese national championship."
Competition at home
With PV Sindhu too now making waves on the international circuit, is this the beginning of a rivalry in the shuttle sport, given that they are both trained by former All England champion Pullela Gopichand?
"You have to realise that it's about playing and winning," says Saina, her tone becoming agitated. "Rivalry will be there. After all, everyone at the (other) end is your opponent. Just because she's Indian doesn't mean I won't try to win."
Since winning bronze in the World Championships last year, Sindhu, the world No 11, has had a phenomenal run. With the 2013 Malaysian GP and Macau GP wins in her kitty, the 18-year-old is gearing up for bigger things. The leading lights of Indian badminton met competitively in last year's Indian Badminton League and Saina won both encounters.
Saina says that with Sindhu coming up the ranks, "It gives me more encouragement to train harder. (Besides) it's also a good thing because that means we have competition. What's the use of one player dominating for 20 years and then once he/she retires, the country has to start from scratch?"
They might be training in the same academy in Hyderabad but that doesn't mean they share inputs. "We don't have to work together," Saina emphasises. "I play someone else, Sindhu plays someone else. Why are we discussing opponents when coaches are there to do that? We have to prepare for longer matches, especially against the Chinese.
"Everyone today is working on something extra to baffle opponents. So, the best thing to do on court is to keep working hard and not stop running!" she ends with a laugh.