Nagpur: From the day it started, the 82nd Senior National Badminton championship was building momentum towards the high profile clash between PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal and the organisers were clearly looking at it to be the grand finale of a highly successful event.
The build-up had reached a crescendo by the time the two girls actually took to the court on Wednesday evening with about 5000-odd spectators chanting their names and another 1000-1500 people standing outside the Mankapur Sports Complex hoping to get into the already packed stadium.
And to their delight, Nehwal and Sindhu came up with probably their best match against each other so far.
The pressure was always going to be on Nehwal, given that Sindhu had recently won the World Championship silver and the Korea Superseries to climb to world number 2 ranking while the former world number one was still looking for her best form after returning from the knee injury in 2016.
The last two times the two had faced each other in the Premier Badminton League and the India Superseries, Nehwal was clearly playing catch up. But Wednesday was different.
Since shifting her base back from Bengaluru to Hyderabad, Nehwal had started to look more comfortable with her movements and the improved stamina was showing in international tournaments too. This meant that both players would start on an equal footing and those who know the 27-year-old would have vouched for her ability to come out all guns blazing.
The situation was similar to their first competitive meeting in the 2013 Indian Badminton League when talk of the emerging talent of Sindhu, who had become the first Indian women’s singles player to win a world championship bronze, and the waning powers of Nehwal were doing the rounds. But the 2012 London Olympics bronze medallist had then set the record straight with a comfortable win.
The only difference this time around was that Sindhu is clearly the top Indian player now and Saina, the challenger.
As far as the crowd was concerned, there was no clear favourites as they cheered for both the players with the same enthusiasm but it was important for both the players to get off the starting blocks quickly after having waited for over an hour to get on the court beyond the scheduled time due to the closing ceremony and speeches by politicians.
Both players know each others game in great detail and the strategy as such was clear. While Nehwal was obviously going to engage Sindhu in long rallies before employing those powerful smashes, the latter focused on exploiting her opponent’s weakness in reaching shuttles in the forecourt.
Both of them managed to successfully execute their plans in the initial exchanges but once their engines were properly warmed up, the rallies got a little longer and Nehwal began to show her prowess.
The world number 11 controlled the tempo of the rallies brilliantly and did not allow Sindhu to come under the shuttle often enough to plays those jump smashes or sharp drops. And even if she did, the 27-year-old had the power and the speed in her legs to retrieve.
The last 10-12 points which also saw Sindhu save five match points before succumbing to the tactics applied by her opponent probably summed up the entire encounter. Nehwal would pile on the pressure on her younger opponent with her precision play while the world number 2 was willing to push herself to the last ounce to turn the rally around.
She was successful on five occasions as Nehwal would ultimately make an error and allow Sindhu an opportunity to look for those elusive two straight point to take the match in the decider.
That, though, did not happen.
The match ended after the longest rally of the match with Nehwal retrieving everything thrown at her before turning things around and finishing the rally with her trademark smash.
The 2017 world championship bronze medallist played it cool in the post-match presentation but her words showed that she was under a fair bit of pressure.
It is no secret that Nehwal probably needed this victory more. She wanted to prove to herself that her decision to move back to Gopichand Academy was a step in right direction and to show to her detractors that she still has a few years at the highest level.
To her credit, Nehwal showed the grit and determination to grind out points when under pressure and the tactical acumen to go for the kill at the right time to lay hands on her third National title, exactly a decade after she won her second.
The Nationals have no points that go towards improving a player’s BWF ranking but the confidence boost that Nehwal would have gotten from this win will go a long way towards helping her making rapid strides in international badminton once again.