Saina Nehwal ended her campaign in the group stage of the PBL with two wins and two losses. On the face of it, that appears like a reasonable record. On closer inspection though, this mirrors her performances since a career-threatening knee injury at the Rio Olympics.
Saina's two wins came against Beiwen Zhang (world No. 11) and Michelle Li (No. 21), both ranked lower than her in the world rankings. Against higher-ranked opponents -- world No. 1 Tai Tzu Ting and No. 4 Carolina Marin -- she failed to win a single game. She missed a prospective match against No. 3 PV Sindhu with an ankle injury.
Saina's best result at a major tournament since the Olympics has been a bronze at the World Championships in 2017. However, she benefited from an easy draw in Glasgow and the only top 10 player she defeated there was Sung Ji Hyun, who she has lost to only twice in 10 career meetings.
Saina has failed to progress beyond the quarterfinals in the 12 Superseries tournaments she has played since the Olympics. In contrast, she had reached the semis in four of the 12 Superseries events she played before the Olympics, besides winning a silver at the World Championships.
Since the Olympics, her record against the top four players in the world -- Tai, Akane Yamaguchi, Sindhu and Marin -- is a dismal 1-6. In three of the four games against Tai and Marin in the PBL, she failed to win more than seven points. Saina also dropped a game each against Beiwen and Michelle. She had only dropped one game in five previous meetings against them on the international circuit.
Despite accounting for the fact that she was not at her hundred per cent this tournament, Saina's problems here were similar to the ones she has battled with since the Olympics. Her troubles started right at the outset in the match against Marin as she struggled with her serve initially and looked as though she had not warmed up well. Marin dispatched Saina's serves with powerful smashes and made her pay.
Ever since her surgery, Saina seems to have slowed down a step or two and many opponents have tried to exploit that weakness by pushing her deep and then playing well-camouflaged drop shots that put pressure on the knee, since they require stretching forward at short notice.
Saina has always struggled against players with good deception and her slower pace has increased her problems. Even when she has managed to read the direction of the drops, opponents with quicker foot speed -- such as Marin and Akane Yamaguchi -- have put her under pressure with flat returns.
Saina, who will turn 28 in March, is one of the older players on the women's circuit. The only player to win a women's singles medal at the Olympics or Worlds after turning 28 this decade has been Germany's Juliane Schenk, who won bronze at the 2011 Worlds.
Speaking to ESPN after her surgery, Saina had said, "It is okay, many people will think my career will end and I won't come back. I also think somewhere deep in my heart that maybe it is the end of my career, so let's see how it is. Maybe, you never know."
While she has already surpassed her own expectations by adding another medal at the worlds, her sheer mental strength and will power has ensured that she has remained in the top 10. However, her best chance to win another major medal might lie in taking a brief sabbatical and getting herself fully fit.
Bengaluru Blasters head coach Arvind Bhat had suggested as much after Saina's early exit at the China Open. "What Saina needs to do now is just put her head down and train," he said. "No tournaments, no inaugurations. You have to give that time to your body. The calendar doesn't chalk out an off-season but you have to allow yourself one."
With the World Championships, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games scheduled for later this year, the time to take a break for Saina is now. Lest it be too late.