When the new rankings are released on Thursday, the 25-year-old Saina Nehwal will become the first Indian woman shuttler to hold the coveted World No. 1 spot, breaking the Chinese stronghold on the rank since December 2010.
She allowed herself a wide smile as Japan's Yui Hashimoto erred after saving five match points. The smile said a lot. Every shuttler who takes up the sport has certain aims and after years of hard work and sacrifice, Saina Nehwal can finally tick another box - being ranked the best in the world.
Before the Yonex Sunrise India Open, the race for the top spot was between Saina and the reigning world champion Carolina Marin of Spain. A lot of calculations later, one figured Saina would have to reach the final at least to become No. 1. However, once Marin was shown the door by Thailand's Ratchanok Intanon in the semifinals on Saturday, Saina was assured of the top spot even before she went on court for her last-four stage match.
While Marin lost 19-21, 23-21, 20-22, Saina thrashed Hashimoto 21-15, 21-11 in 43 minutes at the Siri Fort Stadium in Delhi. "It's unbelievable," said a joyous Saina. "I was the World No. 2 in 2010 but couldn't make the next step. After being in the top 5 for a long time, I can enjoy this moment a little bit today."
For the statistically minded, China's Olympic champion Li Xuerui will drop 7800 points from her current total of 79214 because she failed to defend her crown here thanks to injuries. Marin, the current World No. 4, has 72098 points and after this week will drop 4900 points from the Bitburger Open while adding 6420 from the semifinal showing in Delhi. It would leave the Spaniard with 73618 points. Saina currently has 74381 points and after this win is assured of 7800 points at least which immediately pushes her ranking points to 77141 after her last year's India Open quarterfinal points (5040) are dropped. The top-10 performances in a year are taken into consideration for rankings by the BWF.
End of 35-year wait
Prakash Padukone was the first from the country to become the top-ranked player in 1980 after winning the Danish Open, Swedish Open and All England Championship. India had to wait for 35 years for Saina to accomplish the feat. After a lot of highs and lows, Saina's consistency in the past seven months has paid dividends. Shifting to train in Padukone's academy in Bangalore under Vimal Kumar, the 2012 Olympic bronze medallist, has helped her make four finals, three on the trot. "Consistency is the key," she explained. "Earlier, after winning a tournament, I would go out early in the next. Now I'm beating the players I had lost to. I didn't expect such results so fast to be honest," she quipped.
So what's changed? "I'm trying new variations and moving well. Secondly, I'm more comfortable picking up shots which grows your confidence. It was at the Asian Games (in Incheon) that I began to believe in myself again. I had began to get confidence," she said.
Former national coach Vimal expected Saina to reach the top spot in May this year. "When he told me, I wasn't confident. But now, I don't know what to say. It's been a lot of hard work and sacrifice. Now I need to aim to stay injury-free."
"When I began, my mother only said 'get me an Olympic medal'. The top spot is unbelievable, a bonus. I need to see the rankings to believe it. I can place this achievement after the London bronze," she said before heading off to get ready for Sunday's final, her first at her home tournament.