Saina Nehwal talked about her achievements at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics ahead of her third trip to Rio Olympics 2016. She also opened up on how her breakthrough to the quarter-final stage at the Beijing Olympics was more of a massive facelift for Indian badminton than her historic bronze medal finish at the London Olympics four years ago.
The ace Indian shuttler talks on how becoming the first Indian badminton player in the history of Olympics to enter the quarter-finals was a turning point in an upcoming book, titled ‘My Olympic Journey’, co-authored by journalists Digvijay Singh Deo and Amit Bose.
"I am proud to think that I inspired a new generation to take up badminton, especially girls," says Saina of the 2008 Olympics. "Across the world, one generation of successful athletes inspires the next lot of champions. It is a trend, and Beijing saw Indian badminton cash in on my story. From then, the pressure was on me to perform and build on my success, and this proved to be a motivating factor in my career."
Saina won her first Super Series title at the Indonesian Open in 2009 when she beat China’s Wang Ling. That victory made her believe in herself and gave her the hope that she could cut it at that level. She also gave credit to her former coach, one of the greatest badminton players to represent India, P.Gopichand for helping her on her quest for glory.
"It proved to be a catalyst for what followed. I started reaching the semi-finals and finals of major tournaments consistently, and as a result, my ranking improved as well," revealed the former world No 1.
"A lot of credit goes to Gopi for improving my game and scripting success after success on the circuit. In 2010, I won three titles in a row: the Indian Open, the Singapore Open, and a successful defending of my title at the Indonesian Open.
“That year I was also awarded the country's highest sporting award, the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, and won the final gold medal of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi that took India to second place on the medal tally."
Saina helped India earn its third medal at the London Olympics in 2012 by clinching a bronze medal when her opponent and World no.2 Xin Wang did not participate in the third place play-off match as she had a knee injury after taking the first game. Wang was forced to leave the court but came back after bandaging her twisted knee and quickly went up 1-0 in the second game.
However, she was unable to continue due to unbearable pain, and the Chinese superstar conceded the match, and Saina was given the bronze medal. At that time, the 22-year-old became the first Indian badminton player to have a podium finish at the Olympics.
Saina reveals in the book that the emotions she felt after losing the semi-final, the third place play-off match and after it, most importantly the high of seeing the Indian flag soaring at the iconic Wembley Arena in the book.
"I was disappointed [to lose in the semi-final]. I had gone to London to win the gold. I had a day to compose myself, as I knew I had to return with a medal. I had to show something for all the hard work that I had put in over the last four years.
“I knew I could beat Wang Xin as I had beaten her in the past," says Saina. "I lost the first game but was still confident of coming through, as it was my eagerness to dominate and be aggressive that had seen me commit unforced errors. I had already noticed that Wang was not moving too well and looked short of full fitness for a match at this level.
"My intuition proved correct as she fell down exhausted at the start of the second game and had to concede the match. I was extremely surprised when it happened. I wanted to win my medal by defeating my opponent, but never did I imagine that I would win an Olympic medal by virtue of my opponent being exhausted!
“I was a bit rattled to see her in agony and went across to sympathize with and console her. I hugged her and shook her hand as she conceded the match, and it never crossed my mind to celebrate that moment. It would not have been the correct thing to do, and I am proud that I kept my emotions in check.
“There would be time for it, an hour or so later, when I stood on the podium and saw the tricolour rise over Wembley Arena."Published 30 Jun 2016, 12:15 IST