Six years after she won the Denmark Open in 2012, Saina Nehwal is back in the final of the same tournament after defeating Indonesia’s Gregoria Mariska Tunjung, the reigning world junior champion, 21-11, 21-12 in a one-sided semifinal.
She will face a familiar opponent in the final in world No. 1 Tai Tzu Ying. Tai progressed to the final after defeating China’s He Bingjiao 21-14, 21-12 in the other semifinal which was equally lopsided.
How have their past meetings panned out?
Saina is on an extended cold streak against Tai, having lost each of her last 10 meetings against her. Tai also leads the overall head-to-head 12-5. It has been over five-and-a-half years since Saina last defeated Tai, at the Swiss Open in 2013.
The two have already faced each other four times this year and Saina failed to win a single game.
Their only close match this year came in the semis of the Asia Championships, where Tai won 27-25, 21-19; Saina had come into that match on the back of a 14-match winning streak.
What have they done this year?
Tai has been the standout player on the women’s circuit post the Rio Olympics and this year has been no different as she has already pocketed seven titles in just 10 months. Tai emerged victorious at the Indonesia Masters (where she defeated Saina in the final), All England Open, Asia Championships, Malaysia Open, Indonesia Open, Asian Games (defeated Saina in the semis) and Chinese Taipei Open.
On the other hand, Saina’s last major tournament win came at the Australian Open in 2016. Having struggled with injuries post the Rio Olympics, Saina has had a second wind this year, winning gold at the Commonwealth Games and bronze at the Asian Games as well as the Asia Championships. She also made the quarterfinals of the World Championships, where she lost to eventual champion Carolina Marin.
How have they progressed to the final?
The top-seeded Tai has progressed to the final without any major hiccups, dropping just one game against Chen Yufei in the quarterfinals. She has not spent more than 47 minutes on court in any of her four previous matches.
Saina has had a much tougher route to the final. She had to battle for one hour and 21 minutes to get past Cheung Ngan Yi in the opening round. She then defeated world No. 2 Akane Yamaguchi in the second round before winning against former world champion Nozomi Okuhara in the quarterfinals.
Those two wins were particularly impressive as Saina had lost her last six and three matches against Okuhara and Yamaguchi respectively. She will need a similar turnaround in fortunes against Tai in the final on Sunday.
Keys to the match
Speaking after her loss to Tai in the semis of the Asian Games earlier this year, Saina did not hold back praising her opponent.
“You don’t know how to play against her. Every rally is a different rally. There’s no set pattern to how she plays. When I tried to hit to her backhand because she is so strong at the net, she would hit it behind me too. She’ll hit it flat and drop it and because you are figuring out what to do, you get stuck in the middle,” she had said.
Tai has only lost five of her 55 matches this year and is entering the match on the back of a nine-match winning streak. While Saina has been more attacking and looked to keep the points short in this tournament, her struggles against Tai have primarily been down to the difficulty she faces in reading her opponent’s strokes.
The emphasis on greater attack worked perfectly against defensive players like Yamaguchi and Okuhara but Tai’s deception and aggression will be a much more difficult proposition for the vastly experienced Indian.
Saina first reached the semis of the Denmark Open in 2012, a year where she eventually went on to win the title. Of the four women who made the semis that year, Saina is the only one who’s still active, which shows her remarkable longevity and consistency.
Her best chance of winning this match, though, might lie in Tai having an off day like she did in the quarterfinals of the World Championships, the only major tournament she failed to clinch this year.