Saina Nehwal will hog the limelight in her quest for a gold that Indian women shuttlers have never won as home conditions and current form of players combine to make badminton one of the brightest medal prospects for the country in the Commonwealth Games this year.
On current form, world rankings and the size of the field at the Commonwealth Games — which do not feature Asian giants China, Indonesia, Korea and Japan — Indian shuttlers can hope to at least clinch five medals out of the 18 at stake in the October 3 to 14 event.
The country has so far won 11 medals, including two gold medals in men’s singles, but the yellow metal has always eluded the women shuttlers with Aparna Popat winning silver and bronze in 1998 and 2002 editions respectively.
But come October and a billion hearts will throb in unison for world number three Saina as she battles for the gold against the Malaysians, the English and the Singaporeans.
It was during the Melbourne Games that a 16-year-old Saina burst into the limelight when the then coach Vimal Kumar chose her as the top singles player against Singapore in the bronze medal match and the Hyderabadi delivered by helping India win the bronze.
Four years later, Saina has risen in stature to such an extent that she has become a Khel Ratna awardee and the face of Indian badminton.
Given her international standing, anything less than gold on home turf would be a disappointment for the 20-year-old, who has only Mew Choo Wong of Malaysia to deal with as a possible threat to her title hopes.
“My aim is to win a medal for the country at the Commonwealth Games. I have a few more weeks for the Games. I’m preparing hard and I am focusing on my game. I have to win a medal,” Saina said.
Badminton is a discipline dominated by the Asian nations such as China, Indonesia, Korea and Japan and since the Commonwealth Games doesn’t feature these nations, competition for India will come mainly from England and Malaysia, who have won 93 and 51 medals respectively so far.
India have done well in the past but they have never looked so good and it would be there best chance to reap the biggest ever medal haul.
“The Indian badminton team is very well-prepared and they have also done well internationally. We have lots of hopes from the shuttlers and I hope they will come up with at least four medals,” national coach Pullela Gopichand said.
In the men’s singles, Chetan Anand, who won the bronze in 2006 Melbourne Games, and youngster P Kashyap will spearhead the Indian challenge and they would look to emulate Prakash Padukone and the late Syed Modi, who had won the title in 1978 and 1982 editions.
Struggling with a knee injury, Chetan has been inconsistent this year and his recent form has taken a major dip, especially after his first round loss to Singapore’s Ong Zhao Ashton Chen, who was then placed 107th in world rankings.
Kashyap, on the other hand, has been in reasonably good touch but unlucky with the draws. The Indian will hope that luck smiles on him when he competes against illustrious colleagues such as Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia to bring India a medal.
India’s medal hopes will also rest on world number 13 mixed doubles pair of Jwala and Diju, who recently reached the quarterfinals of the World Championship last month.
For Jwala-Diju, England will be the biggest threat as they might turn up with three doubles pair but the Indians should still back themselves to win a medal in the prestigious event.
“We would be aiming for gold and if I can be fit and we can play to our best, nothing can stop us from getting the medal,” said Diju.
“Although the level is not that high compared to the World Championship, I still think there would be some good challenge from England, Malaysia and Singapore.
“The Asians still can be managed but the English will be difficult to get across. I think they are coming with three doubles pair and in Nathan and Jenny they have a good pair,” he added.