Saina goes down fighting to Okuhara, settles for bronze in World C’ships
Saina’s run might have ended in semis, but coming back from knee surgery and winning medal proves the hunger hasn’t diminished
Glasgow: Saina Nehwal settled for a bronze as her impressive run at the World Championship came to an end after a heart-breaking loss to Rio Olympics bronze medallist Nozomi Okuhara of Japan in the women’s singles semifinals on Saturday. Saina, who had won a silver medal two years ago at Jakarta, gave everything in a battle of attrition but Okuhara’s never-say-die attitude helped her to outmanoeuvre the Indian 12-21, 21-17, 21-10. After battling for an hour and 14 minutes, it was the World No. 12 Japanese, who managed to eke out a come-from-behind win over the Indian, to become the first shuttler from her country to reach the final of Worlds.
IT was exactly a year back, at the Rio Olympics, when Saina Nehwal hit the biggest low of her career. She was out in the group stage, losing to Ukrainian outsider Maria Ultina. A knee surgery followed and she was out for three months.
During this time, Saina underwent rehabilitation. She came back in November, at the China Open, but was far from her best. Similar was the story in events she played in Thailand and Macau. She could not get past quarterfinals in any of these events.
In 2017, though Saina started on a bright note at the Malaysia Masters and won the title, consistency was lacking. That saw her slip in the rankings too, as she went down to World No 16. Even after qualifying for the World Championships in Glasgow, no one really gave her a realistic chance of getting a medal.
But Saina has once again managed to silence her critics. Beating all odds, she got the 27-yearold body to perform against younger players and even outplayed some of them to secure bronze. SM Arif, Saina’s fomer coach, was mighty impressed with her showing and and felt if she maintains fitness levels, she will be a force to reckon with in the years to come.
“Saina had done reasonably this year. But to come in contention of a medal and getting it is great. I know a lot of players who couldn’t even return to the court after knee injury, but this girl has and that makes it really special. To play over 70 minutes on consecutive days is no mean task,” Arif told Express.
On Saturday, Saina’s dream run was cut short by Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara, who beat her 1221, 21-17, 21-10. Nevertheless, the 2015 World Champinship silver medallist’s performance has made a big statement. “Today’s match was just an indicator that Saina has to improve in some more aspects of her game. She couldn’t capitalise after winning the first game. But having known her for a really long time, I believe that she will come back even stronger in the next tournament,” Arif said.
Such a turnaround after being written off might have surprised most, but not Arundhati Pantawane, a former India No 1, who has seen Saina from close for a long time.
“What Saina has done is commendable. It takes a lot of grit to come out of a severe injury and perform. There was a dip in her performance after the surgery, but that is bound to happen. After knee surgery, a player’s forward movement gets restricted. That’s what we saw earlier this year. But she has bounced back brilliantly. She trained hard to achieve these results. I remember people constantly talking about her age, but that is hardly a factor. It’s how your body supports you,” Arundhati said.
Since June, Saina had been putting in the hard yards to get the best results. So it was no surprise that a fitter and leaner Saina moved well in Glasgow. “I met Saina just a day before she left for Glasgow. She looked supremely fit. She was oozing confidence and didn’t look in any kind of pressure. I guess it happens when a player puts in more that 100 per cent,” noted Arundhati.
Results: Singles semifinals: Men: Viktor Axelsen (3, Den) bt Chen Long (5, Chn) 21-9, 21-10. Women: Nozomi Okuhara (7, Jpn) bt Saina Nehwal (12, Ind) 12-21, 21-17, 21-10.
Saina Nehwal reacts after losing her semifinal match against Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara in Glasgow on Saturday |