A series of losses against top shuttlers had left Saina Nehwal in tears but the Indian ace showed tremendous drive and hunger to achieve the World No.1 status, former national coach Vimal Kumar said.
The two-time former national champion, who has been training Saina ever since her split with long-time mentor Pullela Gopichand in September last year, said the drive and hunger shown by the Indian ace can be compared to tennis greats such as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
“She is the one best player in the world. She was going through a lean phase which happens to any top sports person. It is her efforts; she has got good work ethics. I see in her that desire to excel that only a few possess like Roger Federer or (Rafael) Nadal. They have achieved so much but still want to be the best. I see that drive in Saina,” Vimal told reporters at the Siri Fort Sports Complex.
“When you are the top 8 there is always a good possibility to be no 1. How consistent you are that matters. Now she has gone there it will be tough to maintain that. She has to show consistency. She has shown that last 2-3 months and I am happy for her.
“It is a great achievement and very creditable. Personally I feel very happy for her because she was literally in tears when she was losing, that frustration you can see when you go through those times. Now she has to maintain that intensity and focus because it is tougher to be there at the top,” he added.
Vimal further said: “After the Asian games, when I watched her play in Denmark and French, she was leading and losing, I told her there is nothing wrong and she can achieve it. She is a demanding girl, I am getting old so it was not easy to be there at the court for 6-7 hours, there were times when I had to tell her to stop. So it is not easy to have that focus and drive and that is what has taken her here. So I will give her all the credit.”
Vimal, who represented India at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, said he helped Saina to take responsibility and analyse her game so that she can find her way out of a tricky match situation.
“I lived in Europe so I think little differently. I always felt she needed to make some decisions. When she came to me, I wanted her to be independent. You need to develop so that you don’t feel disappointed, you need to learn to take the responsibility,” he said.
“I kept telling her it is 90 per cent ‘you’. We are there to provide you that support. So in practice sessions, we tried out different things. But I told her that you have to come to me and tell me what you want and then I will give you my inputs and then we can decide what needs to be done. So she started opening up. Some of the variations that she has been working, is working now,” he added.
Going down memory lane, Vimal spoke about how it was under him that Saina had started her journey in international badminton as a 15-year-old playing at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.
“I was the one who gave her the opportunity to play in the 2006 Commonwealth Games. She was sitting next to me and watching. Aparna was playing the defending champion and losing. Saina said if i get a chance I can beat that girl. It was not arrogance but confidence,” said Vimal, who had served as the national coach for many years before quitting the post in 2006 to concentrate on coaching youngsters at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy.
“Aparna had developed some wrist pain, so we gave her a chance and she beat all the top players like Tracy Hallem. She pulled off her matches and for the first time we could win a bronze. Two weeks later she won the Philippines Open, so that’s how she started her journey.
“I still see that fierce drive and hunger. She was always mentally strong but to put it in match situation is different. It is very difficult. It can happen to any sports person. We have seen what happened in All England final. I had asked her to take some time off and to get back to me when she feels comfortable.
“But after two days itself she called me and told that she had forgotten that match and she wants to train. So we haven’t spoken about that match even now. All players go through that, even Carolina went through that in Korea. When Saina is relaxed we will discuss what happened that day in the final,” said the former top 20 player.
Vimal said Saina will achieve much more if she can keep analysing her game and apply the variations that she has been working on.
“Sometimes a small change can make a difference. She is making some small variations, she is analyzing on her own and I want her to do that more and more in future. She has beaten so many good players and she was number two. She has matured as a player. Between25-28, is the best time for Indian players to achieve. So she will won many more titles,” he said.
Drawing a comparison between Prakash Padukone and Saina, Vimal said: “Prakash had limitation when he was playing at that level. He was very intelligent. He would tackle the Chinese pace by slowing the match. He had a subtle wrist, he was very good at the net but he didn’t have a big hit. He maneuvered. But he was a self-made man, so we used to learn a lot watching him. He is a soft person, but he was very tough inside.
He lacked fitness compared to the Chinese and Indonesians. He used deceptions and intelligence.
“Compared to that Saina has the power but she has to bring the variations that Prakash had more in her game. So she is trying that out.”
Vimal, who won the prestigious French Open in 1983 and 1984, gave credit to Pullela Gopichand for changing the face of Indian badminton and singled out Kidambi Srikanth for his exploits, describing him as a potential world number one.
“I will give Gopi a lot of credit. Earlier Bangalore was the national training center and now Hyderabad is the center. We have a lot of good singles player,” he said.
“Srikanth is the next player, who has the real possiblity of becoming the number one and winning big tournaments. Gopi has given so much support and brought us to this level. I will give a lot of credit to him.”