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

Sunday Express - - FRONT PAGE - MAD­HAV AGAR­WAL @Hy­der­abad mad­hav@newin­di­an­ex­press.com

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.

AFP

Saina Ne­hwal re­acts af­ter los­ing her semi­fi­nal match against Ja­pan’s No­zomi Okuhara in Glas­gow on Satur­day |

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