Saina: 'I would place this medal next to my Olympic bronze'
Saina Nehwal dropped her racquet and screamed like a maniac.
A defeat against a younger compatriot, she knew, would only resurrect questions of age and relevance.
And she had stubbed those out for now.
"In India, if I lose, 100 things would be written about me, 'oh Saina lost, Saina's becoming old, Saina should retire'," she was to bare her thoughts later. But on Sunday against PV Sindhu, younger to her by five years, she moved like a dream and played just like old times.
"I would place this one next to my Olympic medal and my World No. 1 ranking. So I would keep it somewhere there. It's a very emotional moment for me after the disappointing loss in Rio due to injury."
Every Saina-Sindhu match brings with it a batch of fresh questions. Mostly pointed at the senior player for obvious inference of experience falling to younger limbs. "For her (Sindhu), it is still alright because she is still coming up," says Saina, suggesting that she's often left to deal with the harsher judgement. "We don't play much in practice games. We have a healthy rivalry. No doubt we are under tremendous pressure in such matches. It's not easy to play against someone who ranked No.3 in the world now."
Attributing her fluid court movement to weighing lighter and working harder on improving her leg strength, the five kilograms she's lost over the past few months, Saina said, has made a difference both to her agility and reach. "I got a bronze at the World Championships, played the Indonesia Open final, but that big win wasn't coming through. So I started working with physio Christopher Pedra after the India Open and he came up with a very good rehab program. Also Gopi sir has been running different programs for both Sindhu and me and he's kept pushing me to do better so that has helped too."
Then there were rallies like the 64-stroke one at 18-all in the second game, at the end of which both players were bent double on court -- Saina resting on her racquet and Sindhu clutching her knees, panting, gasping and telling themselves that this would be over soon.
For Sindhu, nothing seemed to be working. Errors by the bunch and a couple of loose shots drowned her mother's calls for focus. By the second game, Saina was attacking her backhand and throwing in smash winners. A third game could have swung either way, probably more in favour of Sindhu, so she wanted to keep that possibility firmly shut.
"Today, I fought well. I didn't attack much because my stamina was running out. I just wanted to finish off rallies. I knew if it went to a third game, it would be 60-40 in her favor," a relieved Saina said.
She stayed back on court after her win, waving at the crowds and flinging her racquet into the stands as Sindhu packed up and walked off court, but for reasons of propriety was asked to wait for her opponent by the match official. Saina soon jogged to catch up, carrying a large kit bag on her shoulders and a smile.
"I think the second game was anybody's game but I played my best. I could have won the second game. But after 20-20 you can't rely only on your fitness and strokes," Sindhu said, with a touch of regret. "She is an aggressive player but I was prepared, there were no easy points. Had I won the second game, the third would have been different. When we play against each other, we both want to win. So I play aggressively and so does she. I gave my best. Maybe today was not my day."
Of course. It belonged to Saina.