Her Twitter feed was flooded with congratulatory messages. From cricket stars, actors to teammates, even the Prime Minister congratulated Saina Nehwal on Sunday.
The 26-year-old clinched her second Australian Open in Sydney for her 10th Super Series victory after a hard fought win over China’s Sun Yu. However, this was more than just another title on the resume. It was a clear signal to rivals to watch out as the Rio Games draw near.
Saina became the first Indian woman to hold the No 1 rank on the BWF listing last April, but ended the season second best to Spain’s Carolina Marin. Injuries have plagued Saina but she hits back just when critics think it’s all over for the Padma Bhushan awardee.
After the high of becoming the first Indian shuttler to win an Olympic medal in London, 2013 went by without a single title. She shrugged off the criticism, letting her racquet do the talking instead.
This year, health issues troubled her from the start. During the Badminton Premier League, she battled an ankle injury and fever. It was only during the All England Open in March that Saina started her season cautiously. Since then, she’s made four quarterfinals but her dominating victory over second-ranked Wang Yihan of China in Sydney put her in her first final. She lost only 20 points to the Chinese. In the quarters, she beat former world champion Ratchanok Intanon in straight games.
Saina’s head-to-head against Sun was 5-1 before the final. The tall Chinese ranked 12, had beaten the Indian, currently 8th, only once in 2013. On paper, it was an easy match, but Sun countered everything Saina threw at her, wrapping up the first game 21-11 in just 18 minutes.
Saina attacked more and kept the shuttle in play in the second to bounce back and equal scores with a 21-14 win. The see-saw match boiled down to the decider. A challenge Saina won at 8-10 was the turning point as she soon went up 11-10. Inching forward with winning smashes, she had three match points. But Sun was not finished. She made the Indian work for her first win this season. On the third match point, as Saina’s easy smash was hit into the net by Sun, the Indian’s joy knew no bounds.
When the new rankings come out this week, she’s projected to be in the top 5. But this win will soon be forgotten. She rarely thinks about a victory, turning her focus to the next challenge. With the Olympics up in two months, that’s something Saina has been focusing on, but not too much.
“If I can do something better than bronze this time then it will be a great thing,” she had said. She’s ticked almost everything on her bucket list but a second Olympic medal will elevate her to a league of her own.