In September 2008, when Saina Nehwal defeated the then world champion Zhu Lin of China in the latter’s own backyard, her name was added to the long list of possible challengers to the Chinese hegemony.
The next few months were difficult as the pressure of expectations baulked her down. But the 20-year-old has since learnt to use the pressure to her advantage and Sunday’s Singapore Open Super Series title proved that she has grabbed the top challenger’s spot ahead of the World Championship in August and Asian Games later this year.
This week, the World No. 6 beat Asian champion Li Xuerui and world champion Lan Lu (both of China) in the run up to her second super series crown.
On Sunday, Saina outplayed Tzu Ying Tai of Chinese Taipei 21-18, 21-15 in 32 minutes to bag her second major title in two weeks. The Gopi Chand Aca-demy trainee had won the India Open Grand Prix last week and would look to complete a hat-trick of titles when she begins the defence of her Indonesia Open title on Wednesday.
“These back-to-back titles has done a world of good to my confidence,” said Saina.
When asked about the pressure of playing the Chinese, Saina was quick to point out that she defeated both Xuerui and Lu by matching them in fitness and speed. “I guess now the pressure will be on them.”
Fellow player and Olympian Charmaine Reid of Canada, who was in the commentary box during the final, put things in perspective saying even the other players look at Saina as the top challenger to the Chinese.
The optimism is not without precedence. Though Denmark’s Tine Rasmussen and Malaysia’s Mew Choo Wong have beaten the Chinese in the past, the former is in her 30s while Wong has been struggling for form after a career-threatening knee injury last year.
Saina, on the other hand, has managed to beat two top Chinese players back-to-back twice in one year and even the world superpower has started giving the Gopi Chand ward the respect she deserves. “Yes, they come a lot more prepared for her now,” admitted Gopi Chand.
However, Gopi prefers to take a cautious approach saying the Chinese will come to the big events a lot more prepared after this loss. “We are happy to be where we are. But knowing the depth of Chinese badminton, Saina has to keep working hard to win the bigger events.”