Malvika Bansod's win over struggling idol Saina Nehwal a small step in learning curve

Malvika Bansod in action at the India Open 2022. BAI

For coach Sanjay Mishra, Malvika Bansod fits the ideal teen pupil mold cut off from distractions. She doesn't belong to the doom-scrolling majority glued to their phones or social media and is no movie buff either. "She is focused, obedient and has tons of diligence," says Mishra.

On Thursday, all of her not-so flashy traits and her opponent's dodgy fitness levels and absent form, colluded to launch Malvika into the headlines, as the girl who beat Saina Nehwal. She became only the second Indian after PV Sindhu to get the better of the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist at an international tournament, 21-17, 21-9. Malvika would know better than to read much into it. This was a Saina ridden with knee troubles, coming off a three-month layoff and struggling to hold her body together.

"It don't think it's sunk in yet," the 20 year-old said in a muffled voice through her face mask after the match, looking into the zoom screen. She had never played a Super 500 event before this week's Yonex Sunrise India Open. "It's my first meeting with Saina...my dream since I started playing badminton. I've idolized her. When I took up the sport I used to watch her matches and be overawed by her style of play, her attacking game, power...It's not like I was focused on her injury," she said coyly, "The general strategy was to make her move as much as I could. It was working for me, so I stuck to it."

One of her former coaches Kiran Makode, a leftie himself, hadn't run into too many young southpaw female trainees before Malvika. He began coaching her when she was eleven, putting her through drives and crosscourt drills and a backhand that needed some hammering. She didn't strike him, he says, as the kind bursting at the seams with precocious talent. "It wasn't like 'arre Sachin Tendulkar dikh gaya'," Makode recalls, "What she did have was the will to work hard."

Ranked 111 in the world, Malvika has three senior domestic ranking titles, a Lithuanian International win from last June and encounters with two top-10 players, Pornpawee Chochuwong and Akane Yamaguchi from the Uber Cup last year. Against Saina, she didn't appear star struck, which can only be a good thing.

For the past five years, she's been training under chief junior national coach Mishra. A rally player, Malvika unfurled close drops against Saina, which worked partly because her opponent was too busy putting down mutinies within her own body. Against those her age or higher with no injury concerns, the youngster will need zip and strength in her arms to do any serious damage.

Mishra agrees. "Speed and power that is our two-fold plan," says the chief junior national coach, "There's also work to be done on her finishing strokes. If she has to crack the next level, we have to further load her gym sessions and get her to do short high-intensity reps. At the domestic level, being a rally player works because most Indian players can get flustered if you draw them into long exchanges. It might hold at International Challenge levels too. But to survive beyond that, you have to be more than just a natural stroke player."

Malvika discerns the role of building strength in pushing her game and is quick to call out her penchant for giving away free points. A costly habit at the senior rung. Next, she faces Aakarshi Kashyap, India's third-highest ranked women's singles player outside the top two, in the quarters.

"There's no upper limit to physical strength and fitness," Malvika told the media, "So they are obviously always on the list for improvement. In the near future, after having a big lead, two or three points shouldn't be given away so easily."

Malvika will want to put together her tiny stockpile of learnings to not fade away with a day's headlines.