Saina Nehwal came to the Wembley arena on Thursday in her trademark black dress, amulets around her neck and the stomach to fight, the way only she can. By the time her match ended, Saina was just one more victory away from a historic Olympic medal.
The 22-year-old Indian was up against a very seasoned campaigner, 11 years older with two All England titles in her duffel bag – Tine Baun of Denmark. The head-to-head said 3-3 when play began in the afternoon. The younger Indian, seeded fourth, knew that statistics did not matter on the day.
There was no baggage when she started; no nerves, just the burning desire to get to the next station against another rival. After 39 minutes on the court, she sent a searing smash into the body of her fifth-seeded Danish opponent, raised her arms in glee, went down on her knees and banged the turf with clenched fists, twice. The scoreline read 21-15, 22-20. She had done it.
“I’m so happy, as it’s one of my dreams to play the Olympic semifinals. Last time (in the quarterfinals of the Beijing Games) I was up 11-3 and lost… I still can’t forget that. It’s a dream come true. It’s an unbelievable feeling,” she said after becoming the first Indian to reach the semifinals of an Olympic badminton competition.
The Indian girl will now meet one of the three dangerous Wangs from China – world No. 1 and top seed Yihan – in the semifinals. Saina has never beaten her, with the head-to-head record tilting 5-0 in the Chinese girl’s favour. But given her performances here, she can dare to dream big.
Saina started with a flourish and was soon ahead 5-2, and then 9-4 as Baun tried to play catch-up. Saina’s drops were in place and the smashes incisive. Baun tried hard to get back into the game and came close to 12-8, but Saina kept pulling ahead and raced to match point at 20-12.
It was here that a small fightback began, with Baun saving three match points. Saina had had enough by now. She had left two returns alone, only to find them in! She stayed in the rally and then smashed – Baun could only come up with a feeble return into the net.
The second game was a thriller. The Danish lady in sky blue decided to make her experience count and take the challenge to the young Indian’s corner. She played close to the sidelines, keeping Saina guessing. It was a game of judgment errors as far as Saina was concerned. She let two returns go by and found herself 4-7 down.
From 7-10, she fought back, eyes focused, teeth clenched. She was suddenly on a roll as she picked five points to go 13-10 up. Baun was by now despairing, talking to herself, looking for a window to claw back. She found that and got five points in a row to be up 18-15. Saina tried to smash her way into the game but Baun seemed to have found her way with clever drops and placement. The Danish pro had got the match pint when Saina’s return hit the net and the score read 20-17.
But Saina was not ready to give up yet. She did not want to play the third game. She saved three match points and equalized at 20-20, the last point stunning Baun who was already celebrating, thinking the return was long. Saina clenched her fist and inched ahead with a delicate drop. Then, like in the first game, she killed the contest with a down-the-middle smash.
China’s Yihan, who will be meeting Saina in the semifinals, said it will be a tough match. “I’m getting closer to the medal but I never think about the future. I’m just thinking about tomorrow’s match because the competition is strong,” she said.
The loud Indian support in the crowd played a role in her win too. “I’m happy they are here. I feel like winning for them. I’m happy the Olympics are in London… there are so many Indian people here,” Saina said, while adding that Hyderabad (her hometown) will be celebrating too. “They will all be going crazy… my dad too.”