March 8, 2015 4:28:34 am
Tricky shots, but no patience — that was U. Vimal Kumar’s assessment on the eve of Saina Nehwal taking on the spirited Spaniard Carolina Marin at Sydney’s States Sports Centre for the Australian Open Super Series final midway through 2014. Sure enough, Nehwal would wrap up a straight sets win in just over 40 minutes and pick her first big title of the year.
Marching into the finals of the All England tournament for the very first time with a tailwind of momentum and sublime strokeplay throughout this week, Nehwal is sitting pretty with a 3-0 win-loss count against the Spanish girl.
Thinking that she can pocket the title that means so much to Indians and to the ace shuttler herself by just turning up and watching the whimsical Marin implode, might well be the biggest mis-step that Nehwal can take while believing the smugness of the statistician.
Of that 3-0 past record, the last of the wins came at the beginning of 2015 — a colossal 80-minute Syed Modi Grand Prix marathon final in Lucknow — where Marin stalked Nehwal every step of the way for the first two games and refused to be bundled out in the decider, dragging the Indian into an almighty contest — her second-longest match of her career.
The struggle would all melt into the cheery celebrations of her season’s first title, but India’s Olympic medallist will be very aware of the fact that the opponent that stands between her and the All England title on Sunday is the reigning World Champion.
Easily the most belligerent of contemporary shuttlers, Marin boasts of some tricky strokes, and is not afraid of using every trick in the book — she once spooked an opponent out with her annoying grunting on court, which couples as a devilish weapon of innocent intimidation hidden behind her pugnacious game-face when she gets stuck into opponents.
The left-handed Marin employed one of the most technically skilful and psychologically nuanced challenges when she won the World Championships last year, accounting for the top two Chinese Xuerui Li and Yihan Wang, even as she’s managed to repeatedly outwit the other Indian on the circuit — PV Sindhu.
She’s capable of playing the waiting rallying game and has an attack that can hit top gear when she summons it, although she can over-do the aggression and get caught up in the posturing to her own peril — like she did in Sydney last year. Quick to explode, quicker to implode, Vimal Kumar has watched from close some of the meltdowns when the mercurial Marin came down to India last season for the IBL and turned out for the Bangalore franchise.
She landed in Bangalore because the owner’s girlfriend was a Spaniard who thought the then European champ could add to the diverse profile of the franchise, but the world has seen the hot-headed shuttler rein in her instinct to implode and grab the world title to the shock of everyone who follows badminton.
Still, Vimal Kumar’s assessment factors in the all-important constant — his own charge Saina Nehwal. Steadfast in her game, moving like a dream on court and with a wider array of strokes, the Indian 24-year-old is immune to the sort of mind-games that Marin can play with other opponents.
Never one to back off, Nehwal is no stranger to trading daggers on the court and once celebrated a point against Marin even before the shuttle had hit the floor, completely rattling the Spaniard. The southpaw angles don’t seem to trouble her overtly either.
So, while the 3-0 figure is a comforting piece of statistic, Nehwal would need to be prepared for any of the Marins — from sublime to ridiculous — to show up. The pressure’s been negligible up until now, however the All England carries with it the tug of coveting the title that can unsettle the Indian.
Nehwal seldom gets bullied, and in beating Yihan Wang with crosscourt smashes and Sun Yu with teasing shuttles that skimmed the net or were tossed to taunt the tall girl, the Indian showed her poise in dealing with known threats. Marin’s game, though, is deceptive, and so is her seemingly dodgy temperament which didn’t prevent her from becoming a World Champion.
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