21 days to Tokyo Olympics 2020: The story of Saina Nehwal's and India’s first badminton medal

India's Saina Nehwal (right) with the bronze medal at London Olympics
India's Saina Nehwal (right) with the bronze medal at London Olympics

The 2012 London Olympics was a defining moment for both Saina Nehwal and Indian badminton. It was Saina Nehwal’s and the country’s first Olympic medal in badminton. It was a significant milestone for the sport in India.

A historic evening at Wembley Arena in London not only put Saina Nehwal on a pedestal but it also gave immense faith to multiple badminton aspirants in the country. It was the start of a special journey, which carried PV Sindhu to the finals in Rio de Janeiro four years later to an elusive silver medal in badminton for India.

Four years before the historic feat at Wembley Arena, Saina Nehwal stormed into the record books when she became the first Indian women’s badminton player to reach the quarterfinals in an Olympics. She was outplayed by Indonesia’s Maria Kristin Yulianti and her campaign ended without a medal.

Read: Tokyo Olympics: Rio Olympics silver medalist PV Sindhu likely to be one of India’s flag-bearers

Preparations for London 2012 had begun immediately. The low of Beijing 2008 had to be avenged. Saina Nehwal grew from strength to strength, winning Grand Prix gold medals, Superseries titles, a Commonwealth Games medal and became a force to be reckoned with.

Jolt before the high for Saina Nehwal

Just weeks before the London Olympics, Saina Nehwal contracted viral fever. The fever had severe consequences as the shuttler was not able to train, work out or concentrate properly on the upcoming mega event.

Being the champion she is, Saina Nehwal made a quick recovery and although not 100% fit, she managed to record straight-games win in the group stages.

As the tournament progressed, Saina Nehwal upped the ante in an inimitable fashion. Yao Jie was the first to bite the dust in Saina Nehwal’s hands as she bowed out in the Round of 16 on a whimper.

Tine Baun was next. Despite the Danish player having a reputation for troubling Nehwal in the past, she was unable to oust the Indian shuttler in London. Saina kept her cool and ousted the three-time All England Champion in straight sets, despite being stretched to the limit in the second.

Also read: How PV Sindhu kept herself motivated after missing out on gold at Rio Olympics

Soon after the quarterfinal win, there was another jolt for Saina Nehwal. Her health and the after-effects of the viral fever began to trouble the star shuttler. Going into one of the most important matches of her career, Saina Nehwal was found wanting on several occasions and Wang Yihan, her semi-final opponent, gauged her setback and pounced on the opportunity. Surrendering to Yihan's superior game strategy, Saina Nehwal’s dream of winning an Olympic gold medal ended in a flash.

However, with a bronze medal still in sight, Saina Nehwal vowed to fight on. Standing between a podium finish and returning empty handed was Wang Xin. The Chinese was on top of her game and Saina Nehwal was all but out at the end of the first game. Memories of Beijing 2008 were rolled back, where Saina Nehwal was beaten in the quarterfinal despite having a sizeable lead in the early stages. However, Wang Xin tore a ligament in her leg and was forced to retire.

Saina Nehwal brought home the bronze medal - a reward for a valiant fight by the ace Indian shuttler.

Although the medal was not won the way she might have wanted it to, Saina Nehwal’s grittiness paved the way for an Indian dreaming about an Olympic medal.

Also read: Disappointed for not making it to Tokyo Olympics but eyeing medal in Commonwealth and Asian Games: Ashwini Ponnappa

Sadly, Saina Nehwal's next Olympic excursion ended in failure. While Beijing 2008 was when Saina was outplayed by a superior opponent, Rio de Janeiro 2016 was a bitter pill to swallow. Saina Nehwal was ousted in the second round after deciding to play in the quadrennial Games with a knee injury, a decision that would haunt her for months later.

Come Tokyo Olympics 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic derailed all of Saina Nehwal’s plans to qualify and an Olympic gold remains elusive for the ace shuttler.

Edited by Diptanil Roy
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