Four years ago at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games when Aparna Popat was losing in the mixed team event to England’s Tracey Hallam, a teenager from the Indian badminton team turned to coach Vimal Kumar and said: "I can beat Hallam."
Vimal tried to gauge the seriousness of the girl who had turned 16 a day earlier, had never played any major international tournament and yet talking of beating the silver medallist in the 2002 Games at Manchester.
It took Vimal only seconds to decide. He drafted her in place of Aparna, who was struggling with form, in India’s next tie against Singapore.
Youngster Saina Nehwal did not let the coach down. She shocked Li Li, the Manchester gold medallist, inspiring India to a 3-1 victory. In the semifinal, she kept her word by beating Hallam though India lost the tie.
It was an amazing turnaround for the Indian badminton team -- and the teenager.
India won the bronze in the mixed event, and Saina had arrived on the international arena beginning a fairy-tale success story.
“I was lucky to get a chance. It proved to be the turning point of my career,” says Saina, now world no 3 and a strong contender for womens' singles gold in the Oct 3-14 Delhi Commonwealth Games, as she recalls those fond memories of her salad days.
“I know how a junior feels when you get a chance to play against top international players, that too in an event like Commonwealth Games. You just want to go there and play well. There is no pressure," Saina told IANS. "I played freely and beat some top players.”
Vimal vividly remembers the piece of history that made Saina.
“When she spoke to me taking a mental note of Hallam’s game, it was not arrogance. She spoke with confidence and conviction.”
The senior players in the team were apprehensive when he told them that Saina will take Aparna’s place in the singles, Vimal said.
“But I knew that Saina was special. I had seen her play against Indonesians in training. In fact, I thought she could even end up winning the gold in the individual championship after her inspiring show in the mixed event.
"Saina is very strong mentally. She is fearless and she is not scared of losing, that’s her strength. She is focused. Her world revolves around badminton," Vimal said.
It looks like as if 2006 was yesterday, said Saina.
"Thanks to Vimal Sir, he gave me the chance to test myself in the big league. It came at the right time. I wanted to play the top players. I wanted to play every match. After Melbourne, I was brimming with confidence.”
That year she became the first Indian to win a grand prix gold event by clinching the title at the Philippines Open. Her phenomenal rise in world badminton has continued since then.
"So much has changed for me in these four years. I am a much improved player, among the best in the world, and I have to consistently perform at the top level to be right there.
"I will carry those good memories with me in the Delhi Games. I hope that like the Melbourne Games, my career will get another lift after this great event on home soil."
This year has been special for Saina. She won three back-to-back tournaments including two super series but lost in the quarterfinal of the World Championship. She reached the number 2 in world rankings.
"I am working on my defence and movements, areas where I thought I need to pay attention after the World Championships," said Saina.