Saina Nehwal's name has become synonymous with modern badminton in India. There have been champions before her and there will be champions after her, but this era of Indian badminton will well and truly be remembered by the exploits of the Hisar-born shuttler.
Nehwal brought back to Indian badminton, a swagger it had lost with the retirement of players such as Prakash Padukone, Pullela Gopichand, and Aparna Popat. Even though the sport has produces some of the world's best prospects in the past few years, Nehwal will always be remembered as the one who ushered in a new era.
The Indian shuttler is perhaps in the most important years of her glistening career. At the age of 28, Nehwal is the oldest player in the top 10. Although the Indian shuttler may be less agile across the court than some of her younger opponents, she more than makes up for it with the experience and mental strength.
That exact experience and game-sense was visible en-route to Nehwal's Commonwealth Gold, as she beat the likes of Rachel Honderich, Kristy Gilmour, and PV Sindhu.
However, the Commonwealth Games are long gone and 2018 has presented Saina with another chance to prove why she is regarded as one of the best shuttlers of this era. In simple words, the BWF World Championships are here.
The Championships are being held in Nanjiang, China from July 30 to August 5; as some of the top shuttlers go head-to-head to reign supreme. Nehwal has done well at the Championships in the past. A silver in 2015, followed by a bronze in 2017 has ensured that the Indian shuttler has taken something home for the past two editions.
Nehwal is seeded tenth for the tournament and is the second Indian to feature in the top 10, along with PV Sindhu (seed three). Whilst she may not be an outright contender for the top prize, Nehwal holds more than an outside chance to shine at the Championships once again.
Seed ten means Saina Nehwal finds herself in section two of the top half of the draw. In comparison to the other sections, this one is highly favourable for Saina in her quest to reach the semifinal, but more on that later.
To begin with, Nehwal will play her first match against Turkey's Aliye Demirbag in round two of the Championships. The Indian shuttler was given a bye for round one which resulted in her moving straight to the next round. Things get tricky if Nehwal indeed manages to beat her second round opponent, as is widely expected.
Apart from Nehwal, section two has some brilliant shuttlers, who themselves will be hoping to make a title run in the Championships. Fourth seed Ratchanok Intanon and seventh seed Carolina Marin are both drawn in the same section as Nehwal.
Success against Demirbag will pit Nehwal against Intanon, who is widely regarded as one of the most exciting young shuttlers around the badminton world. The Thai shuttler is rested and raring to go. However, what gives Nehwal the advantage over Intanon is their head-to-head record. Nehwal currently has nine victories as compared to Intanon's five when the two shuttlers have met. The Indian shuttler has also won the last three matches between the two.
Moving on from Intanon, Nehwal can also come up against Carolina Marin and Sayaka Sato in this section. The Indian will be looking to get revenge on Marin after her finals loss to the Spaniard at the Championships three years ago. The Indian holds a slight advantage over Marin as well, winning five of their nine matches so far.
Sayaka Sato and Soniia Cheah can also provide tough competition to Nehwal in this section. However, the Indian shuttler has gotten better of them on previous occasions.
Understandably, winning past games is not a good measure to predict future outcomes. However, a positive head-to-head helps a player in a psychological way, more than a statistical one.
Beyond Section 2
Moving beyond Nehwal's section, if the Indian shuttler does manage to move on to the Semifinal, i.e, winning her section; she will face some very difficult competition.
Section 1 has some of the most dangerous shuttlers in the tournament. Tai Tzu Ying, Michelle Li, He Bingjiao, and Zhang Beiwin headline the section. If Nehwal does indeed progress to the Semis, she will face one of these four shuttlers barring any major upset.
Luckily, Nehwal holds a psychological advantage to almost all the players she can come up against barring Tai Tzu Ying. The world no. 1 holds an unparalleled advantage over Nehwal and has won on the last nine occasions the two shuttlers have met.
That being said, sports is quite unpredictable. If Nehwal does indeed manage to go this deep in the tournament, chances are, she can go all the way. However, the road to glory is long and the Indian shuttler will know to take one game at a time.
Nehwal begins her quest for a Championship podium, with a match against Aliye Demirbag tomorrow, July 31.