Saina focused on London dreams

Chinese shuttlers will be the biggest obstacle in Indian champs quest for Olympic glory

Kids of all ages arrive to sharpen their skills from early morning while a clutch of Indian players polish their talent with zeal. Outside, in the parking area, is a maroon BMW X6, indicating the presence of a shuttler who is making waves around the badminton world with her stupendous performances.

 Badminton star Saina Nehwal is India’s biggest hope of a medal at the London Olympics. AFPThe gleaming vehicle is the symbol of her success. It reflects her rising stature in the game and her financial status. What it hides is the sweat and tears Saina Nehwal has shed on the way to stardom in Indian sport while emerging as the nation's main medal hope at the Olympic Games in a few days’ time.

These are crucial days for Saina. Like a student preparing for her exams, the 22-year-old is putting in the hours fine-tuning her craft ahead of the biggest test of her career so far.

Minutes stretch into hours and a few minutes’ break is all she gathers as she returns to the court to work on her game further, under the watchful eyes of her coach Gopi Chand, with assistance from fellow trainees.

The residential wing of the academy overlooks the courts and on the way is an inspiring message from one of the greatest sons of this land.

“Let us all work hard my brethren, this is no time for sleep. On our work depends the coming of the India of the future,” says the words of Swami Vivekananda.

Saina seems to embody the spirit of that message in her sessions in the final run-upto the Games. Her two recent wins – at the Thailand Open in Bangkok and at the Indonesian Open in Jakarta – have served to increase the pressure on the Hyderabadi but she seems prepared to cope with it.  
“I had lost early in the Indian Open. So, I was desperately in need of a big victory,”says Saina on what drove her to a level that no one else could match in the two tournaments. “I really wanted to win and God helped me, the confidence of my coach too was a factor as he helped me stay clear of some errors and made me victorious.”

Beijing loss

Saina made her Olympic debut four years ago but Beijing wasn't a successful journey for her. Though only 18, she had made a name for herself by then but she stumbled at the quarterfinal hurdle – as she has done in many major events subsequently – after being in control against Indonesia's Maria Kristin Yulianti. She led 11-3 in the decider before bowing out, in what has remained a painful memory.

“I will never forget that loss, it was sad to lose a medal,” says the former world junior champion who has since conquered many a peak and even adorned the No 2 ranking before settling in her current No 5 spot.

Along the way, Saina has shown a welcome inclination to soak up the pressure, to stay afloat even when the tide is against her and to work her way out of tight situations. These qualities, coupled with her sharp net play and solid smashes, played key roles in her recent victories, with improved fitness levels standing her in good stead.

“I am four years older and more experienced now,” says Saina. “My thinking power and the ability to focus is better than what it was in Beijing while I am working on my stamina and my speed in the final phase of my preparations,” adds the Commonwealth Games champion.

In London, Saina will run into familiar opposition, with the Chinese posing the biggest obstacle in her path. All the four players ranked above her are from China – Wang Yihan, Wang Xin and Li Xuerui. Li had a great run till Saina halted her in Indonesia and the Chinese brought her into the team in place of Wang Shixian, the Asian Games champion. Saina has beaten Wang Xin while world number one Yihan holds a 5-0 advantage over the Indian.

A medal is not beyond Saina but gold is her goal and towards that target, it is essential for the Indian to tackle the Chinese threat as she has done in the past.

Her record against the Chinese is good, though not impressive. But she has shown that they can be beaten, and her latest success might well have given her another key to solving the riddle. “There is no specific way to beat the Chinese,” says Saina. “It is all hardwork, determination and better training.”

Not short on any of those counts, Saina could well be the queen of the courts at Wembley Arena, come August 8.

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