Saina Nehwal could not have won the Swiss Open title at a more appropriate juncture in her career. The Indian badminton champion badly and quickly needed to end her year-long title drought before the London Olympics. More importantly, she did it, breaking a Chinese code.
Saina had a nightmarish 2011, losing to almost every Chinese player she ran into, and now she beat not one but two of them on her way to the title at Basel last week.
Before that, she was beaten by Chinese players a staggering 11 times, four of them were handed by World No 1 Yihan Wang, who has never lost to the Indian. Worse, she recently lost to Yanjiao Jiang, ranked a rung below the Hyderabadi at six, twice and five times in all.
At last, the World No 5 beat a top Chinese, World No. 3 Shixian Wang, in straight games to rediscover herself just in time to boost her medal hopes at London. Her touch seems to have returned and the strokes flowed relentlessly as she defended her title.
"I would say it is a very important win for me. It has lifted my confidence a great deal and I feel my strokes are back. And it is always satisfying to beat the Chinese. I think I am peaking at the right time ahead of the Olympics," Saina told IANS in an interview.
Last year was tumultuous for the the 22-year-old Saina; nothing seemed to go right for her. She broke off from her coach Pullela Gopichand, she struggled to string her strokes and, as luck would have it, an injured ankle hattered her. But she quickly started to set her house in order, first patching up with Gopichand within three months of estrangement.
The results last year may not be a true index of her effort. It was a gradual progression, a result of rigourous seven-hour sessions at the Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad. Gopichand, a former All-England Champion, is preparing Saina for the July-August Olympics, making her realise that she can do it by pushing herself a bit on all fronts.
"I see a definite improvement in my game (since last year). Gopi Sir has planned a complete schedule till the Olympics. We are primarily working on speed, strength and agility. Fitness-wise, the focus is on increasing strength in my legs with a lot of weight training," says Saina.
Recalling the testing times, Saina says: "Last year, I put myself under tremendous pressure and the ankle injury did not help matters. Gopi Sir has been instrumental in getting me through the tough times, and I am glad he agreed to coach me again."
Saina, who made waves by winning three Super Series titles in 2010, says her final appearance in the prestigious World Superseries Finals (WSF) in December turned things around.
"It is not that I am playing well now. Making the finals of a tournament like WSF gave me a big boost. Though I lost to Yihan, victories against the likes of Xin Wang (No.2) gave the much-needed confidence," said Saina, implying the importance of a win against a Chinese.
Five Chinese figures in the top-10 of the rankings with Denmark's Tine Baun and German Juliane Schenk being the top Europeans at seven and eight.
She has a 2-4, 1-4 head-to-head against Xin and Li Xuerui (No.4), while the only Chinese against whom Saina has an edge is against her Swiss Open final opponent Shixian (2-1).
"It is always tough playing against the Chinese. And the interesting thing is that they all play differently. Yihan is the tallest among them and hence her strong point is finishing the points quickly with smashes. Since I am playing well, I want to see how I fare against her next time."
On the Chinese dominance, Saina says: "Each has a coach who has been a world or Olympic champion. That makes a lot of difference. Add to it their labour and resilience; it is an awesome package."
On Gopichand's remark that her strokes needed variety, Saina's take is: "What Sir meant is that I must not repeat strokes in rallies. I need to have more variety in my flicks. In women's badminton you see a lot of long rallies, they need to be cut short, especially against the Chinese."
And amid tight training schedule, how does Saina find time to relax?
"Well, even if I am watching a movie the mind is on the Olympics. I get worried thinking about London, but I guess it happens when you think of an event like the Olympics," she said, adding that she will take "meditation classes".
With everything in place, Saina now only has to use the inputs to fortify herself to make her London fortnight worthwhile.