Saina Nehwal became only the second Indian to reach the final of the World Junior Badminton Championship when she beat local hope Youn Joo Bae in straight games in the semifinals in Incheon, South Korea, on Friday.
The 16-year-old saved a gamepoint in the opening game and then overturned a two-point deficit in the second to win 25-23, 21-13 in 35 minutes. She now faces Asian champion and top seed Yihan Wang of China in Saturday’s summit clash.
Nine-time national champion Aparna Popat is the only other Indian to reach this far in the prestigious event. Popat achieved the feat 10 years ago in Denmark where she went down to Yu Hua in the final.
Saina, who took the world by surprise by winning the four-star Philippines Open earlier this year, adopted an attacking approach in the semifinals and the move paid off. “I knew she was a rally player,” the Hyderabadi said on phone from Incheon. “Though I was on guard and willing to play a long match, I went for the kill every time I got a chance.”
The Indian is aware that her next opponent is not a pushover, despite her international senior ranking of 103 compared to Saina’s 32. In fact, the 18-year-old Wang upset world champion Xie Xingfang in straight sets to win the invitational World Cup in Indonesia in the run-up to this tournament.
“She (Wang) has all the strokes and is a great mover on the court,” Saina said. “I have not made any special plans for her. I am just going to play my game.”
Ex-stars praise feat
Meanwhile, Saina’s exploits have earned her laurels from a host of former badminton stars.
Former shuttle queen Madhumita Bisht said that the Hyderabad girl has it in her to make it to the highest echelons of the sport. “She has it in her to go all the way. All she needs now is to stay level headed and focussed,” she said.
For former Asian champion Dinesh Khanna, it was Saina’s mental attitude that was most impressive. “I have seen Saina from close quarters in the Uber Cup in Jaipur (February). Even against players ranked much higher than her, she was playing quite freely and without a hint of nerves. I was very impressed by her attitude, for a 16-year-old. I think it is that which stands out,” he said.
Former chief coach Vimal Kumar felt that it was her style of play which helped her dominate her opponents.
“Usually, Indian players are known for their sublime touch. In Saina’s case, it is a bit different. She likes to play at a fast pace and likes to dominate. All she needs is consistency.”
Aparna Popat has advised Saina to play the final just the way she has played so far in the tournament.
“There will be a lot of pressure on her. But she just needs to stay focussed and play her normal game,” Aparna said.