Vimal Kumar is known to speak his mind and has always done so with authority - as a player, chief national coach and later, co-founder and director of the Prakash Padukone badminton academy in Bangalore. So, when he says that India's badminton ace Saina Nehwal, his latest high profile ward, can become World No 1 soon, one must take him seriously. (Also read: Chinese media plays down Saina, Srikanth whitewash)
When Nehwal decided to move away from her long-time coach and former all-England champion Pullela Gopichand just before the Incheon Asian Games and chose Vimal, it raised eyebrows.
For two-time former national champ Vimal however, "it was a simple change just like a move in the corporate world." Change is the key word to Saina's success under Vimal, that saw her recently conquer the mighty Chinese in their own den by winning the China Open Super Series. In an interview with mid-day, Vimal highlights the significant changes in Saina's approach that can take the World No 5 to the top of the world.
On Saina's China Open win:
It's very creditable and is bound to give Saina confidence because she has been faltering against the Chinese. In earlier tournaments in France and Denmark, she came very close to beating the Chinese players and had even taken a good lead against them, but later lost. Physically she is at par with them, but tactically, the Chinese players hold a slight edge over Saina. It's this tactical aspect of her game that we have been trying to improve.
On the tactical changes:
Saina simply needs to outsmart the Chinese players. We have been working on some different deceptive shots and she's been encouraged to execute them more often - shots from both the net area as well as from the back of the court. Saina has a very powerful game and if she can bring in deception more often, she'll be very tough to beat. Secondly, Saina likes to play at one pace. So, we discussed the need for a change in pace. And she executed both these tactics beautifully at the China Open.
On the expectations going into the China Open:
When Saina came down from France, I asked her if she wants to go to China straightaway or work a bit more. We thought that maybe she could play in tournaments in Hong Kong and Macau. But Saina said she was feeling good and said, 'I want to play the Chinese in China'. But unfortunately, on the morning she was leaving for China, she had a problem with her toe. Her skin had peeled off. The physio taped it, but it was burning her terribly. I was worried, but she simply turned around and said, 'don't worry, coach. When the match begins, I will forget all about the pain.' With that sort of confidence, I had no doubt that she would do well.
On Saina's move from Hyderabad to Bangalore:
It's a slightly different environment here in Bangalore. But I think we can proudly say that it's had a positive impact on Saina, though I would not like to take any credit for her success. The one thing that I've tried to inculcate in Saina is the need to be independent. I don't like her to be dependent on anybody for too long. Badminton has changed over the last five to six years with coaches shouting instructions from courtside, sitting right behind the player. I believe this is terribly distraction and have even taken it up with the international federation (BWF). On court, you have to make your own decisions and cannot be looking for outside help. The ability to wriggle out of tough situations is the hallmark of a great champion. That's why I want Saina to be independent and even try to avoid traveling with her to tournaments. Here's where a player can improve tactically.
On the elusive World No 1 ranking:
The No 1 ranking is a big possibility. Currently, there are about eight to 10 girls at the highest level, who can run Saina very close. It's all about playing well on the day. Saina is a very demanding girl. If she has come here (to Bangalore), it is with a purpose. Currently, she is lacking a bit of consistency and needs to maintain her winning ways. I'm not saying that she will win every tournament she participates in, but she is determined to do well and that's why I believe she can be World No 1 in as early as six months from now.