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Is Saina Nehwal's looming last hurrah a wake-up call for badminton's NextGen?

Struggling with injuries, badminton ace Saina Nehwal has decided to skip the selection trials for the CWG and Asiad, turning the focus on the NextGen of Malvika, Ashmita & co. to step up.

Is Saina Nehwals looming last hurrah a wake-up call for badmintons NextGen?

Sohinee Basu

Updated: 13 April 2022 1:02 PM GMT

If it wasn't already a slightly jarring idea to see Indian badminton's first poster girl and former World No. 1 having to go through selection trials, to make matters more interesting Saina Nehwal has decided to skip the trials altogether, putting her participation at the upcoming Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, directly at risk.

Little could anyone have guessed that when Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu met each other during the finals of the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, it was probably the last time we were watching Nehwal play at the Games, let alone, bag a gold medal by beating Sindhu, 21-18, 23-21.

But with this decision from Saina's side to not participate in the trials, the chances of the World No. 23 shuttler making the cut for either of the Games' seem next to nil as it was mandatory for all players outside the top 15 and within the top 50 of the BWF rankings to contest the BAI trials.

"Saina has written to BAI, informing her decision to not play in the trials which will be the only tournament to pick players for CWG, Asiad and Thomas and Uber Cup," a BAI source informed PTI, setting several thoughts abuzz ahead of the selection trials scheduled to take place in New Delhi from April 15th-20th.

Is Saina Nehwal's swansong imminent?

Could Saina Nehwal be setting herself up for her swansong and do we have to prepare ourselves to see the last of her great magic with the birdie? If so, the next few years will be all the more precious for her on the tour.

The mind wanders with pressing thoughts as Nehwal's frequency on the badminton court has also considerably dipped, age and injuries doing nothing to help the situation at hand for the 32-year-old shuttler from Hisar, Haryana.

Saina Nehwal in action at the All England Open (Source: Getty)

Peppered with knee injuries, Saina Nehwal's return to the courts has been scrappy and save for occasional bursts of greatness, like a recent one against Japan's Akane Yamaguchi in the second round of the All England Open where the Olympic bronze medallist took on the sprightly Japanese World Champion in a tight three-setter, 14-21, 21-17, 17-21.

To rule out Saina Nehwal would be too premature but it isn't a secret that Nehwal's form has been lacking its usual sharpness, with the surgeries and rehab taking their toll, which becomes evident especially when Nehwal contests matches against younger opponents.

At the India Open in January, Nehwal was at her lacklustre best against up and coming Malvika Bansod, losing to the youngster in straight games, 21-17, 21-9. During the BWF Super 500 tournament in New Delhi, Nehwal had informed that she wasn't fully fit then.

"I had written to them (BAI) immediately after I came to know about the trials. I didn't want my body to go through another tournament at a time when I had just returned from the European leg and just a little over a week remains for the Asian Championships," Saina told PTI about her decision.

"It is slightly unsettling but it is okay. I will keep fighting for the Olympics, in the other events and I have no issues if someone else is considered to be deserving and good enough to win a medal at Commonwealth Games and Asian Games," Nehwal has astutely mentioned.

A 2-time gold medallist from the Commonwealth Games and a 2-time bronze winner from the Asian Games, Nehwal's performance at the two multi-sporting events has always been fetching and with the high probability of Nehwal not being in the squad for both the events, it only indicates that the inevitable time has come for a change of guards.

Trials — a now-or-never for NextGen to step up?

Saina Nehwal (Source: Getty)

For the last few years, the question of Nehwal and her inconsistent form has been haunting women's singles in badminton, leaving all eyes and expectations focussed on 2-time Olympic medallist PV Sindhu, who manages to tick the consistency card always. In 2022 itself, Sindhu has picked up two titles - the Syed Modi International and the Swiss Open, ensuring that she is still the trusted medal-bringer for Indian badminton.

While the men's side has successors aplenty with the 20-year-old Lakshya Sen notably picking up his stride, the women's half tells a different story with Sindhu still being the "major" figure in it.

In that sense, the absence of Saina Nehwal from the trials and subsequently from the squads of both the CWG and the Asiad, if it has to be so, will serve as a symbolic act and put the onus directly on the NextGen shuttlers to shine more consistently and not be a one-tournament-wonder anymore.

NextGen badminton star - Ashmita Chaliha (Source: BATC)

With Nehwal's shadow slowly receding from competitive badminton, it only leaves us with a vacuum that requires filling on priority. While there might be plenty of hands-on-deck with Malvika Bansod, Aakarshi Kashyap, Ashmita Chaliha, Tasnim Mir, Anupama Upadhyaya and even Unnati Hooda shaping up well but the shoes are still too large to occupy.

The pandemic hasn't been the kindest to this new crop of players but with things resuming to normal and competitions taking place full-fledged, there will be little room left for excuses if the NextGen doesn't step up soon.

The trials, which will select the squads for the Thomas and Uber Cup Finals, the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, will therefore play a crucial role in portraying how the year of Indian badminton will pan out and with the colossus figure of Nehwal absent from the key tournaments, the onus will be on Malvika and co. to considerably improve their game and give Sindhu company at the helm.

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