Determination, confidence set her apart

Determination, confidence set her apart

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Determination, confidence set her apart

The year was 2006. India’s best women’s singles player Aparna Popat was past her prime and was losing to England’s top player Tracey Hallam, the defending gold medallist, in the mixed team events during  the league phase of the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

As a pensive national coach Vimal Kumar looked on, Saina Nehwal, just 16 and flaunting a boy cut, approached him and announced with defiance: “I can beat Hallam”.

Vimal can still recall the steely resolve in Saina’s eyes. When India had to again face England in the semifinals, he replaced Aparna with Saina despite the teenager playing in her first major international tournament.

It was a big breakthrough for Saina. She had beaten 2002 Commonwealth Games gold medallist Li Li in the quarterfinals against Singapore and kept her promise by beating Hallam in the semifinals. India, though, lost to England to be content with a bronze.

The years might have softened her rough edges but that raw hunger to beat the best still throbs within Saina. Her performances in recent years have attested to this fact.

As a 16-year-old, Saina had said her dream was to win an Olympic gold. In 2008, when 18, she became the first Indian woman to reach the quarterfinals of the Olympics. In 2009, she went on to win her first Super Series event, the Indonesian Open, becoming the first Indian to win a BWF Super Series title.

However, it was 2010 which proved to be her breakthrough year. She became the first Indian woman to reach the All England semifinals before going on to win three Super Series events — Singapore, Indonesia and Hong Kong. She won the hearts of the fans when she struck gold at the Commonwealth Games at home after saving a match point. The very year she achieved the ranking of World No 2. In 2012, Saina fulfilled her dream of becoming an Olympic medallist when she won a bronze at the London Games.

The last couple of years have seen her battling injuries and indifferent form but she maintained her place in the top 10. The rise of P V Sindhu, too, threatened to overshadow her but Saina backed herself and spoke with confidence of regaining her place.

The 25-year-old shocked many when she decided to part ways with long-time coach Pullela Gopichand and began working with Vimal ahead of the 2014 Asian Games. But the move, thus, far has worked favourably for her. She won the prestigious China Open in November, then defended Syed Modi Grand Prix at home in January, and reached the All England final. She is now the new world No. 1.

For the longest time, Saina was known to be the only non-Chinese threatening the Chinese domination. On Saturday, she finally ended it.

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