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Saina Nehwal — female version of Gopi Chand

Stan Rayan

KOCHI: As she enters the court, you can see the respect and fear in her opponent's eyes. Saina Nehwal, Indian badminton's wonder girl, scares the living daylights out of her rivals. A good number of her matches in the Indian circuit last just fifteen minutes and twenty at the most.

Given her awesome performances, one begins to wonder whether she is the female version of Gopi Chand.

"She may be better than that," says Thomas John, the India-born British coach at Gopi Chand's new academy in Hyderabad where Saina trains.

"Watch her, she'll win all the three National titles (sub-junior, junior and senior) this season. And if she works hard, she may win the Commonwealth Games crown in Melbourne next year," predicts Thomas.

But Saina has higher ambitions. "I want to win an Olympic gold," she says.

Given her hunger, she is in the right hands. Her idol Gopi Chand, who shocked the badminton world by lifting the All-England title a few years ago, frequently monitors her training sessions at his academy.

The 15-year-old Saina is already the country's junior champion and a runner-up in the Senior Nationals, losing to Aparna Popat who is World No. 27 and a former Junior World silver medallist.

At the international level, she won the Junior Czech Open two years ago and was a leading member of the Indian team which bagged the Commonwealth Youth Games silver in Bendigo, Australia, last year.

Saina fought well against host Korea's top-seeded Ha Jung Eun in the girls' second round of the Junior Asian championship last year before losing in three games. And she was in the Indian team for the Uber Cup qualifiers, the youngest-ever to do so.

The teen wonder has badminton in her blood. Her parents Harvir Singh, a scientist at the Directorate of Oilseeds Research, and Usha Rani were former State champions in Haryana and it did not take long for Saina to start swinging the racquet.

Working on weaknesses

She moved to Hyderabad seven years ago and was trained by Dronacharya Awardee S.M. Arif for two years till his retirement from the SAI last year.

Unlike many Indian girls, Saina relies on ruthless power to subdue her opponents. She used to be a little suspect in her net play and mobility, but a recent look proved that the Andhra Pradesh star has worked on these aspects.

Having ironed out many of her physical flaws she now has to work on her mental make-up, especially when it comes to the international circuit. Often, after gaining huge leads, Saina has been unable to hang on to them and finish the job.

The Gopi Chand Academy has plans to send her to Holland or Denmark for training soon. That's the best thing that can happen to her career at the moment.

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