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All England semifinal preview - Saina Nehwal on the verge of a big moment

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Saina Nehwal is the favourite going into the semifinal of All England today.

Saina Nehwal has won 209 matches in her career, out of a total of 302 so far. Some have doubtless been more important than others; even so, her semifinal today, and possibly the final tomorrow, will be among the most important.

The Olympic semifinal no doubt was a momentous occasion, but to any badminton fan, the All England is where it’s at. There is nothing else that compares in terms of legacy.

The World Championships began in 1977; badminton debuted at the Olympics in 1992. For decades before these two events, the All England was the one measure of a player’s worth. For Indians especially, the All England presented the only stage to prove their prowess.

We have all grown up on the tales of players like Prakash Nath (first Indian finalist in an All England, 1947), Devinder Mohan (who lost to Nath on the toss of a coin in their quarterfinal, 1947); George Lewis, Dinesh Khanna, Nandu Natekar, and of course, the first Indian to have conquered the event: Prakash Padukone.

When Padukone won the All England in 1980, he revolutionised Indian sport. He proved that Indians could be world-beaters in a physical sport dominated by Europeans and East Asians. In terms of morale, what he did with his All England win was incalculable. He inspired not just sportspersons, but businessmen as well, for the days of the Indian global achiever was yet to come.

Saina Nehwal has been a pioneer for Indian sport from her teens. She has had as big an impact as Padukone, but in a different way – she has become an icon for the woman athletes in India.

She now finds herself in an All England semifinal. She has been here before, in 2010, but she’s two years wiser and a whole lot calmer. She will face Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand. Saina has won four of their six meetings, but Ratchanok won their last encounter at the BWF Superseries Masters Finals in December.

The Thai is a gifted player; she will test Saina with her sheer variety of strokes. But Saina is the fitter of the two, and on current form, she should be able to make it to the final. She also seems to be the favourite against either of the other two semifinalists, Tine Baun or Sung Ji Hyun.

She was astonishing in her quarterfinal win against China’s Wang Shixian. What stood out was her tenacity; repeatedly sending the shuttle back even though Wang’s shots homed in like guided missiles to the front service line. Her tenacity was what killed Wang’s challenge. We can expect more of the same today. But Ratchanok will be no easy opponent. A three-time winner of the World Juniors, she has beaten the very best, and it should be an enthralling contest.

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