By Anand Philar
Chennai, Jun 28 (IANS): When Saina Nehwal broke into the top-10 over a year ago, Prakash Padukone said she was a potential World No.1 if she showed consistency in her performance. Now, the 20-year old Haryanvi, raised in Hyderabad, is well on her way to the top spot in women’s badminton.
The three titles in a row in as many weeks was reminiscent of Padukone’s achievement in March 1980 when he captured the "big three" of Danish, Swedish and All-England crowns. Along the way, he scalped the legendary Rudy Hartono and Liem Swie King.
Those were heady days for Indian badminton with a young Syed Modi in Padukone’s footsteps. Saina's hat-trick of titles has only evoked nostalgia among the old-timers who were privileged to have witnessed Padukone at his peak.
Like Padukone did all those years ago, Saina too is blazing a path for Indian badminton all on her own. It is more than likely that Saina would further emulate Padukone by attaining the World No.1 slot, possibly this year itself.
Padukone’s exploits were in the pre-ranking days when professionals were called "licensed players" who were even barred from participating in certain tournaments, notably the Asian Games. Yet, when the Bangalorean won the All-England crown defeating King in the final following his success in the Swedish and Danish Opens, he was considered unofficially No.1 male player.
It was an era when there was no organised professional tour offering lucrative prize-money. However, Padukone’s No.1 status was never in doubt as he went on to win several major titles. Though the men’s crown in the World championship, introduced only in 1977, eluded him, few disputed his unofficial top ranking.
In the case of Saina, success has been achieved through sheer hard work. Like Prakash, she may not be the most talented player India has produced, but in terms of focus and determination, the two have no peer.
Saina’s "arrival" has been a long time coming. Before her, the bubbly Madhumita Bisht (nee Goswami) promised a lot in the 1980s with her fast, attacking game that was refreshingly different from the "toss-drop" style of her peers. Yet, for all her talent and despite scoring a few notable victories, Madhumita fell short at the highest level.
In the 1990s, Aparna Popat took over the mantle from Bisht. The Pune girl, trained by Padukone, also promised a lot, but did not deliver the big results. She too was the queen of Indian badminton, but lacked the ability to finish matches.
When viewed in this perspective, Saina's achievements are outstanding and former National champion and National coach U Vimal Kumar feels that she can do even better.
"Saina is among the best retrievers in women's badminton. The Chinese may be more skilful, but they are vulnerable under pressure. Because of the present format (21 points up), most players prefer to keep rallies short and the returns flat while Saina forces them to rally longer.
"She has a good half-smash, but her chief attributes are her mental and physical strength. She works hard at her game and I feel it is a matter of time before she becomes No.1," said Vimal Kumar in a chat with IANS Monday.
Presently, Saina has about eight weeks to rest and prepare for the World championship in Paris (Aug 23-29). Her preparations, thus far, have been spot-on, with the two Super Series tournaments besides the India Open injecting a lot of confidence in her.
In Paris, though, the stakes would be greater, so also the level of competition, but Saina has given herself more than an even chance to scale the last peak.