Her confidence at its lowest, Saina Nehwal’s career was like that ship wreckage sunk to the bottom of the ocean. She wasn’t even on the second line of posters that headline the India Open Super 750 tournament. Twelve years after she set Siri Fort on fire winning the Commonwealth Games the first time at 18, Nehwal found a smaller but considerably more emotive reason to love Delhi. It was only the first round, and it was World No 32 Mia Blichfeldt, but Saina Nehwal scored a confidence-boosting 21-17, 12-21, 21-19 win to move into Round Two.
She would leave the gaggle of press with a puzzle to solve: to guess her change in strategy on the last decisive point, punch pleased about how she had pulled off the stroke.
“I was getting a good feeling in the warmup as well that things are clicking,” she would say later. Having lost plenty of weight, moving well on the court, and happy to be playing without debilitating injuries, Nehwal would credit her court mobility for a significant win in a very long time.
“It was a gradual improvement, and I was feeling my stamina come back. Plus the coverage, speed and movement. It came from improving my knee and felt better on the court,” she said.
The struggles have been many, the writing-off of her very piercing. “My confidence was very low, and after 12-10 in the decider I gave away a lot of points stemming from lack of confidence.” First-round losses would hurt, but she rationalised them by saying that she would have to earn her share of ‘easier rounds.’
“You have to win something and pull out good matches to get easier starts. Everyone is fighting, all 32 players give 100 percent. But I got the confidence that I can play very well with all the top players, match them.”
Saina’s most misinterpreted loss had come at Delhi too – at the India Open and the same venue. Barely fit, Nehwal had gone on to play at the last edition anyway, and lost to Malvika Bansod in three. The career obits had flown freely.
“I would like to play well here. You always dream of playing in front of the home crowd. They gave me courage to fight. The mind stops working when you are losing so much,” she said.
“People speak about me not performing. But it wasn’t the losses. If I thought I wasn’t fighting then I’d be concerned. I knew it wasn’t a big injury (the knee) so I had to find a solution,” she added.
She would avoid thinking of finishing the match, because the nerves had botched some earlier games at the clutch. “I just kept thinking there’s 21 more points needed, because the last few points give a lot of tension.”
‘Players like to play’
Nehwal would also answer the question that leaves many bemused about what she’s carrying on for precisely. “Because players like to play. When the body stops I will stop. I know I’m not going to go into coaching. People like Guru Saidutt, Kashyap and even Prannoy can become good coaches because they can express themselves well. Mere mein woh bhi nai hai (I don’t even have that). So I want to keep playing,” she said. “Aur jeetna kya achha nai hai?”
Courtside, she had one of her earliest coaches in Siadatullah, and one of her closest friends in Guru Saidutt, during the early win. Blichfeldt had been a thorn in her flesh, including at the 2019 World Championships. A full 16 years after she started playing on the seniors circuit, Nehwal would settle one small score with the Dane.
She’d thank the crowds. “I mean it is so cold in Delhi, but they kept the energy up.” A power-cut at 7-7 in the decider would add to the drama. And then Nehwal would pull off her strategy that she was so gleeful about, after two roaring smashes gave her match point. The final point was a beauty of a winner – she would gain the shuttle time by rolling her wrist under it and then snapping it short, like a net-drop. A shot she took great pleasure in practising and pulling off at the right time. She paused on the shuttle, and very briefly stopped time.
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