A billion hearts must’ve sunk in collective disappointment when India’s Saina Nehwal crashed to top seed Wang Yihan of China in the semifinals of the Olympics on Friday. It was a match loaded with much significance, for it was Indian badminton’s biggest stage. A win would have guaranteed a medal – either gold or silver – and Saina stood poised on the verge of creating history.
Wang Yihan, on the other hand, was under a different kind of pressure. With China’s top women’s doubles team being disqualified, the Chinese were probably anxious to seal gold medals in the other categories. One has never seen their chief coach Li Yongbo as excited as on Thursday and Friday – he was almost like a cheerleader. Fortunately for him, Yihan delivered from the beginning.
The tall Chinese girl used her whippy smash and well-disguised drops to keep Saina tentative throughout the match. The Indian just could not get the length to keep Yihan pinned to the back. Whenever she tried, Yihan would force the issue back to the forecourt. From 7-4 onwards, Yihan kept pulling away, and although Saina was fighting hard, she had very few moments to celebrate. On a few occasions she did manage to craft good points, shifting the line of attack and killing with her smash. But those moments were rare. Yihan’s smashes were homing in on the lines like missiles.
The Indian staged a brief recovery early in the second. She caught up at 8-all, and then for the first time in the match, had the lead at 11-10 by sending a toss deep into Yihan’s backhand corner. But that was it. Yihan got back through strong play, kept exposing Saina’s flanks, and the match was over quicker than expected.
“I just could not get into the match,” said Saina. “She was too quick, and her smashes were finding the lines. I just couldn’t move fast enough today. I don’t know what happened.”
Yihan, for her part, called it “the best match I’ve played this year.”
China were seeking to make a statement after the disqualification of their top women’s doubles team, and they’ve done it in the most comprehensive way possible. They’ve assured themselves of gold and silver in the women’s singles and the mixed doubles, and it’s likely that they will still walk away with five golds out of five events at these Olympics.
Still, the bronze is left to play for, and Saina will want to focus on that. She plays China’s Wang Xin, and that is a match she can win.