Saina's stroke of faith
Looking back Badminton
Olympic bronze was the high point for the Indian even as Chinese continued to rule the roost.
Saina Nehwal showed her class once again on the big stage and moved into the elite ranks of Olympic medallists as she waged a lone battle against the mighty Chinese shuttlers who dominated global badminton for another year.
Saina was a thorn in the flesh for the Chinese in 2012 but the 22-year-old could not completely douse the Dragon fire on most occasions. However, more importantly, Saina realised one of her childhood dreams by standing on the Olympic Games podium with a bronze medal around her neck in London.
While Saina had a top-notch year compared to fellow non-Chinese shuttlers, the men and women from China had a tremendous year which saw the seasoned Lin Dan retaining his Olympic gold and rising star Li Xuerui collecting her maiden yellow metal from the quadrennial event.
Young Chen Long, who climbed to second place in world rankings — two places above Dan who is in the twilight of his career — and Xuerui, who reached the summit at the expense of compatriot Wang Yihan, made it obvious that the Chinese have planned well for the future.
For the world number three Saina, it was highly satisfying year in which she won four major titles. For the first time in her career in seven attempts, Saina got the better of the then world No 1 Yihan as the Indian showed remarkable mental strength this season. “It was a big year because I won an Olympic medal. I am really really happy with the way I played and it was the easily most satisfying year for me,” Saina said. “I hope this performance will continue in the coming year.”
Towards the end of the year, the 22-year-old struggled with a right knee injury, losing two league matches to lowly opponents and bowing out in the semifinals to Xuerui in the Super Series Finals. And then, in controversial circumstances, Saina conceded the tie at match-point in the first round of India Open Grand Prix Gold, again citing pain in her knee. “The injury is not that threatening but my knee needs some more rest which I would get only after January,” Saina said.
Saina took some time to get into the groove at the start of the year and the Hyderabadi had to wait until March 18, a day after her 22nd birthday, for the first trophy of 2012, scalping the then world No 2 Shixian Wang to retain the Swiss Open crown. Two months later, Saina enjoyed a double delight, adding two trophies to her collection by the clinching Thailand Open Grand Prix and Indonesia Open Super Series where she got the better of Xuerui.
On right track
The twin titles put her in good stead for a medal in London but that also increased the burden of expectations on the Indian. Saina had a smooth sailing till the quarterfinals at the Wembley Arena but she failed to cross the semifinal hurdle against Yihan. However, with a tinge of luck, the Indian stood on the podium in London when Wang Xin retired in their bronze-medal match.
Perhaps it was not the best way to pocket that precious medal but Saina wasn’t complaining. Accolades and felicitations were the order as Saina had to skip a couple of major events before she returned with a bang by clinching the Denmark Open Super Series Premier. Saina took revenge for her Olympic loss by defeating Yihan in the semifinals before going on to lift the trophy after scalping Juliane Schenk of Germany.
Away from Saina, the most exciting news for Indian badminton this year was the emergence of teenage shuttler P V Sindhu who had a couple of good displays on the world stage.
The 17-year-old, another product from the Gopichand Academy, stunned Olympic champion Xuerui in the China Masters Super Series and she also won the Asia Youth (U-19) title. But towards the end of the year, Sindhu injured her knee which forced her to sit out of a couple of top meets but the Andhra Pradesh lass came back strongly to finish runner-up in the India Open Grand Prix Gold in Lucknow.
India’s men shuttlers, apart from Parupalli Kashyap, was once again a disappointment. The 26-year-old Kashyap created history by reaching the quarterfinals in London. Kashyap, who ended the year with a career high ranking of 20, also made it to the semifinals of the Indonesia Open Super Series and ended the year on a high, taking home the India Open title.
The likes of Ashwini Ponnappa and Jwala Gutta failed to win a title this year while bowing out in the group stage in London. Jwala then took a break leaving Ashwini to partner Pradnya Gadre but the duo struggled to find their rhythm. The mixed doubles pair of Jwala and Valiyaveetil Diju was also out-of-sorts but off the court the 31-year-old Kerala shuttler tied the knot with Dr Soumya.
In the men’s section, the only one to challenge the might of the Chinese was Malaysian Lee Chong Wei. The 30-year-old Lee, who is on his final stretch of his career and had been troubled by injuries throughout 2012, had a bittersweet 12 months. For the second successive Olympics, Lee fell to the guile of Dan but the Malaysian remained No 1 with a couple of Super Series crowns.
A major controversy erupted at the Olympics with eight women’s doubles pairs thrown out of the Games for not trying to win their matches in the group stage to get a favourable draw in the knockout phase.
Another Olympics is four years away but the likes of Saina, Xuerui, Yihan, Long would be eyeing 2013 to kick-start their preparation in the long, tough and hard journey towards Rio 2016.