Hyderabad, Sep 3: "She can be a world champion.'' These were the words of former chief national coach Syed Mohammad Arif, a Dronacharya Award winner, a few years ago.
Although it is still a long way to go, 18-year-old Saina Nehwal has showed enough talent to become one. At the recent Beijing Olympics, she beat world number five Wang Chen of Hong Kong in a three-game thriller before losing to Maria Kristin Yulianti in the quarterfinals in a match that Saina should have won. She was leading 11-3 in the third game before losing. She is presently ranked 14 in the world. This is the best ever ranking held by an Indian woman.
National coach Pullela Gopi Chand also thinks Saina has the game to be the top player of the world.
``She has the strokes, speed, power and stamina to compete against the best players. She is also wristy and good at the net. She is a learner. She is moving well on the court. She works for long hours at the court. This is important. She has the attitude and hunger for success,'' says Gopi Chand.
Saina showed promised from a young age. Badminton runs in her blood as her father Harvir Singh and Usha Rani were Haryana State champions. Father Harvir saw a lot of promise in her daughter while attending a summer training camp. A scientist with Directorate of Oil Seeds, Harvir decided to stay put in Hyderabad so that her daughter would get training under Arif at Lal Bahadur Stadium.
``I immediately noticed some extra talent in her. She could play amazing badminton,'' recalls the affable Arif.
Saina has not disappointed her parents or the coach. Hers is a success story. She tasted victories from the sub-junior level, sweeping all titles both at the State and the national level. For long, Aparna Popat dominated the national scene before Saina bagged the first senior national title in 2007. There aren't many players in the country who can play quite like Saina. She sets a fast pace.
It was important for Saina to stamp her class in the international arena. She showed her talent by becoming the first Indian women to win a Grand Prix event when she won the Philippines Open in 2006, defeating Julia Xian Pei Wong of Malaysia. That was the first step towards international glory and she has made measured strides since then.
Saina has been a model of consistency and this will be a key to her success.
``That is important in international competition. She plays her the strokes confidently. She is powerful and energetic. She will be the player to be watched closely,'' says U Vimal Kumar, the former national coach. Vimal thinks Saina is a much improved player. ``She plays the shuttle flat with power and panache. It is a good sign,'' adds Vimal.
The next few years are important.
``I'm a confident player. I think I'm playing well and moving well on the court. The Beijing Games has been a great tournament for me although the quarterfinal defeat still rankles,'' says Saina.