Ace Indian shuttler Saina Nehwal got a shot in the arm ahead of next month's Olympics as she lifted the Thailand Open Grand Prix badminton gold title after rallying to beat Thailand's Ratchanok Inthanon in the final of the event in Bangkok on Sunday.
The 22-year-old World No. 5 Indian beat Inthanon 19-21, 21-15, 21-10 at the CU Sport Complex in Bangkok for her second title of the year after the Swiss Open win in March.
The win will come as a massive boost to Saina's confidence ahead of the Olympics in July-August.
The top-seeded Indian was scratchy to start with but drew from her experience and superb manoeuvring at the net to beat her second-seeded 17-year-old rival.
Although it was a see-saw battle to start with, Inthanon's energy and fabulous baseline play stood out. The smash winner, which is Saina's stock shot, was coming out more frequently from the Thai's racquet who seemed to revel amid the partisan crowd's thunderous cheering.
Inthanon, ranked 11th in the world, grabbed a 10-7 lead after Saina's attempted smash landed outside the court and the teenager, to whom Saina had lost in the Sudirman Cup last year, made it 16-10 in no time.
At that point, Saina was struggling to match up to the Thai's sheer athleticism and swiftness on the court. In fact, most of the points that Saina notched up during the game were courtesy the errors committed by Inthanon instead of standout shots by the Indian.
The gap kept widening in favour of the Thai, whose spectacular speed in covering all ends on the court was commendable. Down 12-19, Saina staged a recovery of sorts making it 17-19 as Inthanon had an attack of nerves which led her to commit a few unforced errors. She ended up wasting a game point by stroking one into the net but egged on by a vocal coach and vociferous home supporters, she managed to clinch the game on Saina's serve.
Saina was clearly the better of the two at the net but it was Inthanon's seven smash winners against the Indian's one which made the decisive difference in the game.
Change in fortune
The change of ends in the second game also brought with it a change in fortunes as Saina took the lead by drawing Inthanon to the net and forcing her to commit mistakes.
The Indian took a 8-3 lead with four net winners as Inthanon struggled to adjust the pace of her shots from close range. In all, Saina managed 12 net winners in this game against Inthanon's three.
Inthanon's energy that was so visible in the opening game seemed lacking in the second but Saina too deserved credit for adapting to the pace of the game, in fact slowing it down much to the Thai's discomfort.
The baseline smashes that were flowing smoothly from Inthanon's racquet in the first game were landing on the net in the second even as Saina regained her touch to come up with some aggressive strokes to take a 16-12 lead at one stage.
But the Thai was in mood to give up without a fight and narrowed the gap to 15-17 with her fifth smash winner of the game.
However, Saina drew from her experience to reel off four consecutive points to clinch the game. Saina was quick off the blocks in the deciding game and took a 3-0 lead and was up 11-4 in no time thanks mainly to Inthanon's erratic play.
Inthanon's net game was not the strongest but even from the baseline, the teenager was unable to bring out the sheer pace which had flummoxed Saina in the opening game.
Changing her racquet could not make the difference that Inthanon had been hoping for as Saina took a formidable 17-7 lead once again with her superior net play which fetched her eight points against the local favourite's three at that stage.
Leading 17-10, Saina came up with one of her trademark smash winners and let out a scream before notching up four successive points to clinch the title.
Gopi Chand lauds Saina
National coach Pullela Gopi Chand lauded Saina's performance and said she remained positive despite being down to start with.
“Saina started off slowly. Actually Inthanon was playing some very hard smashes in the initial part of the first game but Saina almost caught up with her and lost very closely,” Gopi Chand told PTI from Bangkok.
“But in the second game, she was confident and opened up a good lead and maintained that till the end. In the third game, she dominated throughout. Saina played the kind of game which was important because, she played a lot of net dribbles and got points from the net,” he added.