When Saina Nehwal takes on Li Xuerui at Kuala Lumpur’s Putra Stadium on Saturday, they won’t be fighting it out just for a spot in the women’s singles final of the Malaysia Open Super Series Premier. Also at stake will be the world No 1 ranking.
On top of the world for 119 consecutive weeks since December 20, 2012, Li was finally dethroned when Saina reached the final of last week’s India Open Super Series in New Delhi.
The Indian ace’s ascent, however, was quite fortuitous — her Chinese rival has been struggling with a foot injury, and has only played in eight ranking tournaments over the past year. Badminton world rankings are determined by adding the 10 highest points earned at events over the previous 52 weeks.
Since a total is employed instead of an average, a player risks losing out by playing less than 10 tournaments that count towards rankings.
The system, however, means that if Saina loses Saturday’s semifinal, she will gain 1,650 points to go from her current 78,541 to 80,191. Li, on the other hand, will be assured of reaching at least 80,764 from her current 71,414.
At a Super Series Premier event, a losing semifinalist earns 7,700 points; a losing finalist, 9,350. In Li’s case, the points will be added to her existing tally since this is only her ninth tournament in the 52-week ranking period. In Saina’s case, though, the 6,050 points she earned for reaching the quarters of last year’s Indonesian Open will no longer be used for the purpose of ranking calculation.
The Saina-Li rivalry goes beyond the court — at last year’s World Championships, Saina suggested imposing a limit on the number of entrants per country at international tournaments to curb China’s dominance. Li shot back saying “Let her beat me first”. In the quarterfinal that followed, the Chinese shuttler prevailed in straight games. That was the last time the two squared off —overall, Saina has only won on two occasions out of 10.
While the odds are in her favour, Li isn’t a 100% — short of match practice, she was stretched to three games by Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi in the pre-quarters and compatriot Wang Yihan in the quarters, each match lasting nearly an hour.
In both matches, the former world No 1 moved gingerly, some of her line calls were uncharacteristically misjudged.
Not that Saina had it particularly easy in the quarters. Sun Yu bounced back from losing the opener to take the second game. Trailing 4-11 in the decider, the Chinese world No 15 made the most of the final change of ends to win 13 of the next 18 points. Playing with a strapped shoulder, Saina was going for the smash too early on in the rallies.
While she won two on the trot, it was a New York slice of luck at 19-17 — a rare bad line call that Sun, having exhausted her reviews, could not challenge — that gave Saina three match points; a sequence of dogged retrievals gave her the win.
Saturday’s semifinal, then, will be a test of character. Within a week of acquiring it, the world No 1 is being called on to defend her crown against an opponent who has had her number eight times out of 10. It’s a duel to determine who the queen of the court is — if only for another week.