Saina Nehwal will not have it easy when she steps onto the court at the Stade de Coubertin in Paris over the course of the week.
Her draw at the French Open is tricky with a likely second round opponent in former World champion Nozomi Okuhara and, if she gets past the Japanese, a run in with Taiwan’s incredible Tai Tzu Ying in the quarterfinals. It’s true the Indian has struggled against these two opponents in the past, but it would be unwise to write Saina off, and that’s not just because of her pedigree.
Saina is coming off an excellent week in Copenhagen where she reached the final of the Denmark Open. She began by beating former World No.1 Akane Yamaguchi for the first time in six matches, followed that up by snapping a three-match losing streak against Okuhara, and was within one game of ending a 10-match drought against Tai in the tournament final.
In all those matches, there was a new face in Saina’s corner. Sitting alongside coach M. Siyadath, formulating in match tactics and mouthing encouragement between points was Parupalli Kashyap. Fans of the sport might be more familiar seeing the former World No.6 on the court himself, yet over the last few months, he’s making himself a lot more familiar with the coaching side of things.
“I’ve sat for Saina’s matches in the past but the Denmark Open was the first tournament where I’ve sat behind Saina for the entire tournament,” says Kashyap over the phone.
It isn’t as if the 32-year-old has never given advice to Saina in the past. But these were usually throwaway suggestions. “It’s more hands on now. If I make mistakes on court and someone says maybe you need to do this or that, it doesn’t really help. What I need is for the guy to come with me on court and show me exactly what I need to do,” he says.
For the most part, with Kashyap busy with his own career and Saina at the top of her game, there was never any need to work together. The opening came just a few months back after the World Championships. Kashyap wasn’t playing, cut down by one of the many injuries that have plagued him in recent years. Saina, on the other hand, was coming off a severe 21-6, 21-11 mauling imposed by Carolina Marin in the quarterfinals of the World Championships. Quite simply, she was looking for ideas.
“That sort of loss can shock you. When you lose so badly, you forget that you had just beaten (former World Champion) Ratchanok Intanon one match before. You start to doubt everything you have learned. You start wondering if there is something else you could be doing,” Kashyap says.
He doesn’t think there was anything unusual about helping out a fellow trainee at the Gopichand Academy.
“Saina knew she could trust me and at the same time, I really couldn’t train because of my own injury so I thought the least I can do was throw some shuttles to her.”
Kashyap says he spoke to national coach Pullela Gopichand about helping out Saina, and his ideas were received positively.
“Gopi sir has been waiting for someone to take some of the load off him. And it makes a difference if the player has been someone who has been ranked in the top 10 and has performed at the big stages. In fact, Gopi sir is hoping at least two out of the ten or so players who are playing at the international stage right now go into coaching at some point in the future. At the end of the day, we are following what Gopi sir says. Everything I know has been taught by him.”
Still, Kashyap is only tweaking certain aspects of her game. “I’ve sat and discussed what I felt was weak in her game. She has played the circuit for so long, that she has picked up some bad habits. So what we are trying to do is make her movements quicker and sharper,” he says.
“I’ve had some success at the international level too. Some of it has been due to luck, but I think I’ve figured out what was needed to be consistent at that stage.”
Kashyap also believes that there are aspects to Saina’s game that place her in a league of her own. “I think I’m technically a strong player. But there are not many players who can match her mental ability. She has an incredible pain threshold. She will fight at all costs and will stick in the rally when others will give up.”
But there are some weaknesses, too.
“Saina goes into every point trying to win it. And sometimes she can try too hard,” he says, illustrating his point through Saina’s last match against Tai.
“Saina was not disciplined against Tai Tzu in the first game. You can’t panic and attack too quickly against a player like her because she feeds off your pace. And once she starts winning a few points she opens up and starts feeling the shuttle, then you don’t get any more chances.”
He doesn’t blame her though. “You can go in with any plan you want but on the court a lot of how you play is very instinctive.”
While the common perception is that Tai is simply too magical a player to be beaten with any consistency, Kashyap doesn’t see it that way.
“When I watched Tai from the stands or on TV, I also would think what a beautiful player she is. But when you see her from the court you realise how simple her game is. She isn’t doing anything extraordinary. She’s actually very disciplined. She plays very basic badminton. One shot to the front and one sending you back. There won’t be anything to the middle of the court. If she’s caught in a bad situation, she’ll clear the shuttle to the baseline. The only way you stop her is if you cramp her for points.”
That’s easier said than done, but Saina is getting there. Kashyap says neither he nor Saina is particularly perturbed by the string of 10 straight losses to the Taiwanese player.
“The numbers don’t bother me because Saina is going to be playing for a while. She’s going to be around for the next six years and that means she’s going to be playing Tai Tzu at least another 20 times. In the scheme of her career, this or that match doesn’t really matter. This is a marathon not a sprint,” he says.
With his deep understanding of and involvement in trying to improve Saina’s game, it might be easy to forget that Kashyap isn’t nearly done with his own career. After making his latest return from injury, Kashyap, currently ranked 57 in the world, says he travelled with the Indian team to Denmark in order to practise with them on the sidelines of the tournament, even as he prepares for his own comeback at the Saarlux Open in Germany on October 30.
But his interest in coaching isn’t a passing one. “It’s an experience that has really been pleasing. I’ve always been the sort of player who would try to help out my team-mates and I’d say I really enjoy going into coaching full time.”
While a full-time career might still be some time away, Kashyap has high hopes for the player he’s currently working with.
“Right now I think Saina is playing with about 20% of her ability. Her level is right alongside the best in the world. She’s the sort of player who should be winning tournaments consistently.”