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LONDON: Saina Nehwal has struck stunning form at just the right time ahead of the 2012 London Games where she hopes to deliver India a first Olympic badminton medal.
The world number five followed up victory in the Thailand Open earlier this month with a third Indonesian Open triumph on Sunday. The battler looks more than ever a live challenger to the might of China’s women at the Wembley Arena from late July.
In Sunday’s final, Nehwal saved two match points against China’s latest hotshot Li Xuerui before grinding out another gutsy three setter 13-21 22-20 21-19.
“It was really, really tough,” said Nehwal. “I love the crowd, I love Indonesia. I feel like a champion when I step on to the court here.”
Nehwal, a hugely popular figure in India, was 18 at the Beijing Olympics where she reached the quarterfinals only to lose out in three sets to Indonesian Maria Kristin Yulianti.
“I was so close to it,” she told Reuters in an email. “I should have won that third and final set when I was leading 11-3 but lost it 14-21. Such opportunities do not come every time. I am unlucky in that way.”
The former world junior champion struck back the following year to become the first Indian to win a Super Series tournament when capturing her first Indonesian Open title.
The 22-year-old rates the victory the high point of her career, defeating China’s Wang Lin, who went on to win the world title in 2010.
“It was all the more satisfying in that it was a victory over such a prominent Chinese. It was another three-setter and I won the last two, including 21-9 in the decider.” In 2010, on home territory and once more with the aspirations of the country swirling around her, Nehwal won Commonwealth Games gold, surviving a match point against Malaysia’s Wong Mew Choo.
“It was another odd match,” she recalled. “I lost the first set and I was down in second where it went to a tiebreak but I (survived match point) and won it.
“That made it 1-1 and it relaxed me so much I won the final set 21-13.”
A triumph but not an easy one. “I was tense because of millions of peoples’ aspirations for me,” Nehwal admitted. “But God gave me mental strength and I overcame all the odds to win gold for India.
“That lifted my country to number two in the overall table of medals, a record for India in the Games.”
A year later there followed a low point, defeat in the first round in front of her home crowd in the Indian Super Series.
She acknowledges the burden of expectation is a heavy one as she continues the never-ending battle against powerhouse China, whose women currently occupy the top four in the world rankings
“Yes, it is extreme and particularly on me, all the more so because I want to win and then in turn some silly mistakes occur and I get failure.” Nehwal is one of an elite set of players backed by Yonex that includes men’s world number one Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia, Denmark’s Peter Gade and his compatriot Tine Baun, another woman battling the formidable Chinese.
In March, Nehwal lost in the quarterfinals of a glittering All England championships but bounced back the following week to retain her Swiss Open title
“I was cool, relaxed and focused. It was only with victory there that I could forget about the All Englands disappointment.”
Despite her stellar June, a tough challenge lies ahead for Nehwal but the hope is constant as Wembley looms. “My dream is to win a medal for India in badminton,” she says. (Reuters)