Nearly 14 years after she came into the international limelight, Saina Nehwal is still competing and still going strong. Most of her contemporaries have retired but Saina remains determined to make it to the next Olympics. This itself is an inspiration for the next generation of shuttlers.
Since international badminton is cancelled and Tokyo 2020 has been postponed due to the COVID19 pandemic, it could be a while before we see Saina in action. So meanwhile we’ll take a look back at the 5 biggest matches of her career.
2008 Olympics 3rd Round vs Wang Chen
Hong Kong’s Wang Chen was among the medal contenders for the Beijing Olympics. She was the reigning Asian Games Champion and the runner-up of the 2007 World Championships. On the other hand 18-year old Saina was considered one of the best young players in the circuit, but still a newcomer. For their 3rd Round clash, the experienced Chen was the favourite over the Olympic debutante.
However Saina proved all the predictions wrong as she defeated Chen 21-19, 11-21, 21-11 in a tense 3-game match. This performance against a seeded player was very unlike what Indian fans were used to from their sportspersons at the Olympics. This win, and her close quarterfinal loss to eventual Bronze-medallist Yulianti, showed Saina was here to stay.
2010 Commonwealth Games Final
By 2010, Saina had already become a well-known name. In 2009 she had become the first Indian to win a SuperSeries title (the Indonesia Open) and followed it up with 3 more SS titles in 2010.
But probably the best memory of the year for her would be winning the Commonwealth Games title in front of a home crowd. The Siri Fort stadium in Delhi witnessed a thrilling clash between Saina and Malaysia’s Wong Mew Choo.
At one time, Saina was down a match-point but rallied to win the 2nd game 23-21. She eventually won by a score-line of 19–21, 23–21, 21–13, becoming the first Indian woman to win a CWG Gold. This made her an overnight star in India, and one of the success stories of the 2010 CWGs which had a controversy-laden buildup.
2012 Indonesia Open Final vs Li Xuerui
This was an important tournament in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics. And Saina was in superb form and fitness throughout. She battled it out against Sayaka Sato, Yuswandari, Wang Shixian and Sung Ji-hyun, winning in tough, 3-game matches. In the finals she faced another top player- China’s Li Xuerui. And beat her 13–21, 22–20, 21–19 after saving 2 match points in a 3-game classic yet again.
This meant she had won the prestigious Indonesia Open 3 times- surely a remarkable result in the most passionate badminton-loving nation of the world. The title also enhanced her reputation as a medal-contender for London 2012, and the confidence gained would have helped her on the way to an Olympic Bronze later in London.
2015 World Championship Final vs Carolina Marin
Although she lost the final 16-21, 19-21 to the rampaging Spaniard Carolina Marin, she did become the first Indian, male or female, to reach the finals of the World Championships. She also won her first ever Wch medal, a Silver, going one better than fellow Indian PV Sindhu who had won 2 Bronzes in 2013 and 2014. Earlier in the tournament she got over her quarterfinal jinx after beating arch-rival Wang Yihan.
This was her first significant result after shifting to Bangalore under Vimal Kumar and leaving the Gopichand academy in Hyderabad. What’s more, she regained her World No.1 ranking after reaching these particular finals.
2018 Commonwealth Games Final vs PV Sindhu
PV Sindhu had become the new postergirl of Indian badminton by 2018. She had won the Silver in the 2016 Olympics where Saina had crashed out in the first round, she was the runner-up in the 2017 World Championships where Saina had won the Bronze, she was the new star while Saina was supposed to be on the wane. But Saina was going to prove the naysayers wrong.
An international clash between the two best ever female Indian badminton players was much awaited by fans, and the CWG 2018 finals provided the perfect opportunity. Ultimately Saina won 21-18, 23-21 in a bitterly-contested match, winning her second CWG Gold in the process. And again showing her doubters that she was going nowhere.
Saina has proven the cynics wrong time and again over the years, and as fans we hope she qualifies for Tokyo 2021.