Rusty Saina Nehwal a stepping stone for Malvika Bansod

Malvika Bansod knows she’s not exactly moved mountains by showing a barely exerting and unfit Saina Nehwal the exit door at the India Open Super 500. At best, she sent a pebble skimming to skip on still waters, with a nice leftie side-arm action. Playing a mostly steady game of badminton, the 20-year-old, ranked 111 in the world, created those surface ripples, which look spectacular when bouncing twice or thrice gleefully before they disappear to the water bed. A 21-17, 21-9 win in the second week of January, beating an opponent she grew up idolising, is happy tidings.

Now, onto Akarshi Kashyap, the next opponent. There’s a quarterfinal to be won, once the headlines are put to bed.

What Bansod will be pleased with during that upset win over Nehwal – who is trying to shake away early-season rustiness, is coming off injury and has no semblance of form for two years – is how she reacted to the senior pro’s gameplan.

Nehwal was cutting off Bansod’s soft drops and avoiding the knee-aggravating lunge by parking herself at the forecourt. The younger player managed to make her backpedal with pushes to the backcourt. Nehwal wouldn’t be able to avoid the long stride at the net and find herself out of position. Bansod had run up a 16-9 lead for an assertive start, but it is in the next few points that she would pick the biggest takeaway from this win.

“I think after I get a big lead, the next two-three points I give away through unforced errors,” she would admit later of a tendency that’ll not go unpunished on another day. Indeed, Nehwal had narrowed the lead to 18-16 in favour of the youngster, before smashing wide twice and conceding the first set.

Malvika Bansod after her victory. (BWF)

Thereafter, Nehwal didn’t push. And Bansod didn’t pull back while racing to the win, playing what she called an elementary plan.

“Not just against her (an injured Nehwal), but that is the general strategy in badminton: to make the opponent move,” she said, subtly downplaying the part Nehwal’s injury might’ve played in the win. It’s clever thinking, clear thinking too, against someone who Bansod claimed she was overawed by when she was growing up.

There was no hint of being star-struck in their first face-off though. And in that composure lies Bansod’s promise. The game needs to hike up leaps and bounds.

Power, a big missing element

Bansod made India’s Uber Cup team last fall, but there’s very little to go with if one is to anoint her the ‘next Saina.’

Out of her teens, Bansod can claim one good win against Spanish World No 51 Beatriz Corrales. She nicked a set off the other Spanish No 2 Clara Azurmendi, ranked 46. But at age 20, Nehwal was a Super Series winner and Commonwealth Games champ, and considered formidable by the most recognised Spanish player, Carolina Marin. Southpaw Bansod has miles to catch up.

She went 17-all against World Champion Akane Yamaguchi last year, before the Japanese wrapped up 21-12, 21-17. And Pornpawee Chochuwong didn’t let the Indian cross 15 in 4 played sets.

Saina Nehwal in action. (BWF)

A winner at the Lithuanian International, Bansod has three domestic ranking titles, but the international level can make her falter rapidly, even if she’s shown glimpses of the circuit not fazing her.

Yet, concerns remain about the power in her strokes. Malvika tends to start slow – a recurrence at Sudirman/Uber Cup – and hits her groove by the second set. That’s a set too late if she wants to make breakthroughs.

Nehwal lauded her ability to tackle rallies – Bansod thinks on her feet. But she’ll need the strength in her shoulders to enforce winners.

“There’s no upper limit to improving speed, strength,” Bansod said astutely later. But currently, she has a good season of strengthening to do, given the gentle drops can only take her this far.

Yet there’s hope. What sets Bansod apart from many other talented stroke-makers is her early awareness of fitness – the downfall of all women’s singles players, save Nehwal and Sindhu. “My transition from juniors to seniors wasn’t a shock because I always focussed on fitness even when young. I always saw badminton as a physically taxing game, hence needing fitness,” she stated, aware of the sole pivot on which careers hinge.

Malvika Bansod made India’s Uber Cup team last fall. (BWF)

Bansod is a voracious reader, also studious. Perhaps her most canny ability might lie in measured discretion. Ask her about what gameplan worked: “Just an all-round game.” What does she like reading: “Just novels, just a lot of reading.” What are her goals: “Just a better ranking to play Super 300s, 500s.”

A dream come true it might well be. But she might just be that player who folds this win neatly away into a drawer, and gets down to figuring out the next opponent. Akarshi Kashyap might prove a handful with her frenzied, uninjured bustle.

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