Even before the start of the BSNL Senior national badminton championship, Petroleum Sports Promotion Board's Saina Nehwal was annointed the runaway favourite for the women's singles crown. And the way the 17-year-old bulldozed her way to the final, it looked like the summit clash would be a mere formality.
But then the pressure of winning the title at any cost – she had lost in the final for the last two years – and a gutsy opponent in Aditi Mutatkar ensured that the encounter was not a mere stroll in the park for the top seed.
The Hyderabadi lass had to work hard for 37 minutes for her 21-19, 21-17 win. The victory also meant that the Olympian Badminton Challenge Cup would change hands after a gap of nine years. Aparna Popat – who opted out of the tournament due to a wrist injury – had been unbeaten in the competition since 1997.
Third seed Chetan Anand of PSPB regained the Vikas Topiwala trophy for men's singles after a gap of two years when he defeated fifth seed Anand Pawar 21-18, 21-17 in the final. Chetan went home richer by Rs 27,600 while Pawar earned a purse of Rs 13,800.
Saina began her march towards the title with a flurry of cross-court smashes and drops, opening up a 7-1 lead in no time. With the 17-year-old dominating the initial exchanges it looked like the encounter would be over in no time but then Mutatkar once again showed that she is not the one to give up easily.
The reigning junior national champion has fought back from a career threatening knee injury to find her way to the top and she was determined not to go down without a fight. She began mixing her shots and targeting Saina's backhand with regularity, a move that caught the champion off guard and put her under pressure.
In fact, at one stage Mutatkar even nosed ahead of Saina and looked like she would become the first player in the tournament to take a set from the Philippine Open champion. But then a lucky net chord at 19-18 helped Saina draw level and she made it count by winning the next two points with superb net play.
In the second set, Mutatkar tried involving Saina in long rallies and though she did manage to win a few skirmishes the champion always looked in control.
Later talking to the media, Saina admitted that she was a bit weighed down with the pressure of winning the crown as any cost. "I had lost in the finals for the last two times and I was very desperate to win it this time."
The 17-year-old also gave credit to Mutatkar for the way she fought back in the opening set but said at no point she felt that the match could slip out of her hand.
Mutatkar on the other hand pointed to Saina's better fitness levels and international experience as the main difference between the two. "She knows how to play the big points well. That made all the difference."
The men's singles final was a test of Pawar's ability to stop Chetan from playing his free flowing game. But then the top ranked Indian in the world was at his best through out the week and made it count in the final.
Having lost to the same opponent in the quarterfinals of the Asian Satellite meet in Mumbai last November, Chetan began on a cautious note but once found the rhythm and the length of his shots it was all one way traffic.
To Pawar's credit, the 20-year-old tried his best to change the pace of the game and lure Chetan into mistakes but his efforts were not enough to stop the PSPB shuttler from grabbing his second national crown.
Top seeds Jwala Gutta and Shruti Kurien grabbed their fifth consecutive women's doubles title – and overall sixth – when they beat B R Meenakshi and Aparna Balan 21-17, 21-11 in a lop-sided final.
Sanave Thomas and Rupesh Kumar once again proved that they are the best doubles combination in the country by beating JBS Vidyadhar and V Diju 21-9, 21-19 in the men's doubles final.