Name: Saina Nehwal
Category: Women’s Singles
Qualification: Saina Nehwal earned her 2016 Olympic qualification on the basis of her world rankings
Strengths: Saina is undoubtedly one of the best badminton players, not just in India but also in the world for the past few years. It is this experience – both of her victories as well as defeats – that gives her an edge heading into the competition. Add to that her natural flair and intense fitness regimen, making her one of the strongest contenders at Rio.
Past Olympic performance – Reached the quarter-finals at the 2008 Beijing Games, but lost to Indonesia’s Maria Kristin Yulianti
– Won the bronze medal at the 2010 London Games
Past record (best performances in singles): Bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics in London
– Gold medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi
– Silver medal at the 2015 World Championships in Jakara
– Bronze medal at the 2016 Asian Championships in Wuhan
– Bronze medal at the 2010 Asian Championships in Delhi
– Won Indonasia Open in 2009, 2010, 2012
– Won Singapore Open in 2010
– Won Hong Kong Open in 2011
– Won Swiss Open Grand Prix Gold Winner in 2011, 2012
– Won India Grand Prix Gold in 2010
Rio Prospects: Saina Nehwal is one of India’s brightest Olympic medal chances at Rio 2016, owing to her past experience, bronze medal in the previous Games and recent form. If the former world number one and current fifth ranked player can perform to her full potential and maintain her fitness and energy levels, she has a good chance of becoming India’s first female individual Olympic gold medalist.
Saina heads to Rio with the aim of changing the colour of her medal. Four years back at London, she reached the semi-finals, but lost to China’s Wang Yihan. In the bronze medal play-off, she was trailing against Wang Xin, till the Chinese forfeited the match due to injury. While a medal was won, Saina would not be satisfied by the anti-climatic finish then, and will be keen to forge her own fortune and go the full distance this time around.
There are several reasons why there is a genuine expectation of gold from India’s ace shuttler. Saina’s road from London to Rio has largely followed an upward trajectory. Not only has her game improved, Saina has also become a more attacking and versatile player. She has added more shots to her repertoire and plays a more unpredictable game, with increased aggression.
The results showed when she topped the women’s singles rankings in April 2015, becoming the first Indian to do so. And even though losses and injuries halted her reign, she is still in the top five. She fought her way back to fitness after a Achilles injury last year and went on to win the Australian Open Super Series in June this year. En route to her second Australian Open title, she overcame former world champions, Ratchanok Intanon and Wang Yihan, a feat that is sure to give her a much needed boost ahead of the Olympics.
However, Saina’s quest for the gold will be far from easy. Her injuries in the past means she needs an intense training regimen and will also need to be on top of her fitness and health. In London, a viral fever was said to have affected her stamina, a setback she can’t afford to face at Rio.
One of her biggest challenges will be to maintain her consistency, while still being aggressive. The draw is a tough and highly competitive one, even without the mighty numbers from China. World number one Carolina Marin from Spain, defending Olympic champion Li Xuerui and London silver medallist Wang Yihan from China and Thailand’s in-form Ratchanok Intanon will be Saina’s key competitors, all of whom are ranked higher than the fifth seed.
But fact remains, that Saina is better placed to win a medal at Rio, than she was London. The experience from the last four years will be invaluable when she will take the court. This will also be her best, if not last, chance to claim that prestigious gold. She is 26, playing in her third Olympics, and might not be as well placed at the Tokyo Olympics, four years from now. She carries a huge burden of expectations and will be closely followed by a nation that believes she will bring back a medal. It will be interesting to see how she handles this pressure.