Among all the Indian medal hopefuls headed for London, Saina Nehwal is the brightest.
Since the last Olympics in Beijing, Saina has made rapid strides. Her performances in elite fields made the world sit up and take note of this growing threat to the China-dominated sport. This was reminiscent of the times (late 1970s-early 1980s) when Prakash Padukone made the then-dominating Indonesians, Danes and English players feel the heat before the Chinese entered international competitions.
Saina’s rise also coincided with the ladies from Indonesia, Korea and Denmark making way for the Chinese brigade. Today, Saina is the strongest non-Chinese in the ladies section.
Saina can make India’s first-ever badminton medal at the Olympics a reality.
It must, however, be remembered that till last November, Saina had struggled. Since February, after deciding to prepare for the Olympics without coach P. Gopi Chand, Saina was getting mixed results under coach Bhaskar Babu.
In fact, in seven tournaments, between the last Indonesian Open in June to the world super series finals in December, Saina could not play above her seeding.
Low on confidence, a much-chastened Saina went back to Gopi Chand in November and slowly positive results began to happen.
In December, Saina made it to the title-clash of the world super series finals and carried that confidence in subsequent events this year.
In February, Saina tasted success in the Swiss Open. She made up for the disappointment of early exits from the Indian Open and the Asian championship by winning the Thailand Open and the much-sought after Indonesian Open — the biggest of her career.
Obviously Saina’s form and fitness inspires hope. She is clearly the biggest threat to the three-player Chinese challenge.
Ranked fourth, behind three Chinese girls, Saina will have to deal with some formidable non-Chinese opposition until the semifinals.
This year, Saina has suffered six defeats — five times to four Chinese rivals. Mercifully, out of this lot, only world No.1 Wang Yihan is a certainty for the Olympics.
Should China prefer to field Asian champion and third-placed Li Xuerui ahead of the second ranked Wang Xin or fourth-placed Wang Shixian, it will add to Saina’s worries.
Saina has never beaten Wang Yihan in five meetings. Against Wang Xin and Li Xuerui, Saina holds an identical record of winning twice in six encounters.
Only against Wang Shixian, Saina enjoys a superior (3-1) record.
Ask Saina about handling the pressure of expectations, and she says, “I’ve been doing it for a few years now. I am aware of the expectations the country has from me. I am training very hard in all aspects. I’ve always maintained that there is not much difference between the Chinese and me. It is a matter of confidence. At present, I am well prepared for the challenges ahead.”
In the women’s doubles, world championship bronze medallist G. Jwala and Ashwini Ponappa will have to play way above their recent form to be in medal contention in London.
Similarly in the mixed doubles, Jwala and V. Diju will be required to bring out their vast experience to cause an upset or two. Since the doubles’ draw has 16 pairs, two victories mean a shot at the medal. With fortitude and fortune, the Indian teams can provide something to cheer about.
Nothing to lose
In the men’s singles, Saina’s good friend and world No. 22 P. Kashyap will have to perform like never before to be in medal contention. His journey to the semifinals of the recent Indonesian Open was, no doubt, thrilling.
He caught the eye by stunning world No.3 and top-seeded Chinese Chen Long in straight games in the pre-quarterfinals. But then, Kashyap has remained consistently inconsistent. In the absence of any expectation of a medal, the Commonwealth bronze medallist has nothing to lose.
Keywords: 2012 London Olympics