March 7, 2015 7:53:55 pm
It is a tournament that has launched a thousand dreams in adolescent eyes and among twinkle-toed young Indian shuttlers. The All England, though one among four Super Series Premier meets in the professional badminton circuit, is central to Indian folklore ever since Prakash Padukone beat Indonesian Liem King in 1980 and Pullela Gopichand fetched up two decades later to beat Chinese Chen Hong in 2001.
On Saturday, at the Barclaycard Arena on Birmingham’s King Edward’s Road, Saina Nehwal, 24, put herself in a firm position to follow in the footsteps of her childhood heroes as she smashed out Chinese Sun Yu 21-13, 21-13 to reach her maiden final.
Nehwal’s much-decorated career with a dozen Super Series victories (more than both Padukone and Gopichand in terms of titles) has been lacking this All England aura.
Having crossed a big psychological barrier beating Chinese nemesis Yihan Wang in the quarterfinals on Friday, Nehwal beat another tall Chinese to make her first final at the tournament.
“It’s a really big achievement. I didn’t come here with any goal or specific strategy but I prepared well and felt that if I prepared well, the results would come,” she told the media after her 50-minute downing of the young Chinese upstart in the last-four.
Her father Harvir Singh recalled that previous exits from the tournament — twice in the semis — had left her very sad. “Her first coach, Gopichand, had sown the seeds of this dream in her. Also, she firmly believed that it was high time an Indian woman took a shot at this title.”
While the win against Yihan was a spectacular tactical victory, Nehwal went about systemically breaking down Sun’s resiliently aggressive game in the semis, while asserting her authority on the Chinese psyche and tournament. Nehwal ended both sets strongly, winning 10 of the last 13 and 12 points scored respectively.
“Today was a difficult match because Sun Yu is tall and big and moves around the court very easily. She can usually reach the shuttle in one step while most of us need three or four steps. She doesn’t give you much opportunity to get by her. I just stayed patient and kept in the rallies and I tried to make her move more,” Nehwal said later.
She also admitted that she kept awake Friday night thinking of her win against Yihan, an opponent who held a 1-8 win-loss record against her.
Perhaps it is significant that it was Vimal Kumar who guided Nehwal to the finals and not Gopichand or Padukone, the previous winners here. A coach at the Padukone Academy, Kumar is not a celebrated player like them and this tournament is as much about him proving his credentials.
Late last year in December, Padukone, at whose academy Nehwal trains, had said it was high time she didn’t come under pressure and treated All England as just another tournament — it’s not even the richest on the circuit.
On Saturday, as she stepped into the court, Nehwal betrayed no nerves. “I played my game. I went out there and treated it like a practice game and didn’t think about it being a semi-final,” she said.
She was more effusive in her celebrations later, throwing her racquet into the crowd and hugging coaches Vimal and Madhumita Bisht.
The biggest compliment came from Sun. “Saina has been improving a lot and is playing more steadily and more confidently,” she said.
About the tough final, and one of the biggest matches of her career, that lies ahead, Nehwal seemed prepared. “I’m going to try to give my best.”
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