Best of Saina Nehwal: Classic matches from an incredible career
A trailblazer for Indian badminton, Saina Nehwal, over the years, has scripted some memorable moments for Indian fans.
Apart from winning the bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympics and becoming the first Indian women singles player to reach number one in the Badminton World Federation rankings, the Hyderabadi dynamo has been the protagonist of some unforgettable matches.
Here, we relive some of Saina Nehwal’s best from her career on the badminton court.
Saina Nehwal’s breakthrough win: 2006 Philippines Open quarter-final
Saina Nehwal had a breakthrough year in 2006.
She represented India at the 2006 Commonwealth Games under national team coach Vimal Kumar and won the U-19 National Championship that year.
But the highlight was her triumph at the Philippines Open, making her the youngest Asian to win a four-star badminton event at that time.
Saina Nehwal, then 16, recorded several upset victories in the tournament but the biggest was her quarter-final victory over Xu Huaiwen – the top seed and world No. 4 at that time.
Up against the China-born German player, the teenager was outclassed 21-12 in the first game but Saina Nehwal roared back to take the next two 21-17, 21-17 and shock the much-fancied Xu in the quarter-finals..
Saina Nehwal’s coach and former All England Championships winner Pullela Gopichand described the win at Manila as the perfect blueprint for up and coming Indian shuttlers.
“Her win will serve as an inspiration to youngsters and give them confidence to take on the top players in the world without any fear,” Gopichand had said.
Result: Saina Nehwal beat Xu Huaiwen 12-21, 21-17, 21-17.
Olympics heartbreak: Beijing 2008 quarter-final
As an 18-year-old at her maiden Olympic Games, Saina Nehwal was turning heads.
She marched to the quarter-final on the back of some incredible performances, including a come-from-behind win over former Asian Games gold medallist Wang Chen.
In the quarters, she faced Indonesia’s Maria Kristin Yulianti – five years her senior.
The first game turned out to be an edge-of-the-seat affair. Yulianti took an early initiative but Saina Nehwal scored seven points on-the-trot to claw her way back in the game and eventually took the lead.
The Indian squandered a game point but held her nerve to take a marathon of a first game 28-26.
Yulianti drew level after taking the second game 21-14 to set up a decider.
In the third game, Saina Nehwal raced to an 11-3 lead after some fine attacking display but a change in sides and exhaustion disrupted her rhythm. Yulinati made full use of it and won the game 21-15, and the match.
“I don't know what happened. Maybe I made a lot of mistakes. I'll be much more prepared next time. I'll be much more experienced,” a young Saina Nehwal vowed after the loss.
She made good on her promise by winning bronze at the Games four years later in London, but not forgetting her Beijing exit.
I am very happy that I won a medal, but I can’t forget that match (Beijing). It is very difficult to forget that because I could have reached the semi-finals in my first attempt and I lost it.
Result: Saina Nehwal lost to Maria Kristin Yulianti 28-26, 14-21, 15-21.
Classic at Jakarta: 2009 Indonesia Open final
At the 2009 Indonesia Open Super Series, Saina Nehwal broke through yet another glass ceiling.
It was an era of unrelenting Chinese domination in women’s badminton, and Saina Nehwal’s win made her only the fifth non-Chinese player and first Indian to win a Super Series women’s singles title at the time.
In fact, Saina Nehwal was the only non-Chinese shuttler in the final four and endured a tough battle against Lu Lan in a tough semi-final.
Up against world No. 3 Wang Lin in the final, Saina Nehwal produced one of her most memorable performances.
Having lost the first game 21-12, the Indian shook off her nerves and changed her strategy.
Against an aggressive player, much like her, Saina Nehwal curbed her natural game and challenged Lin at the net.
The change of pace yielded results as the Indian restored parity winning the second game 21-18.
In the decider, the Indian trailed initially but fought back to make it 7-7. From there on, Saina Nehwal shifted gears and there was no looking back as she outplayed Lin to create history.
“The second game was very important. I blunted her strokes and she was tired in the decider,” Saina Nehwal noted after the contest.
It also made Saina Nehwal the first Indian woman to win a Super Series title. Many more would follow, including multiple Indonesia Opens, two Australian Opens, and one each of India Open, China Open, Singapore Open, Hong Kong Open and Denmark Open.
Result: Saina Nehwal beat Wang Lin 12-21, 21-18, 21-9
Battle of attrition: 2012 Indonesia Open quarter-final
At the same event and at the same venue three years later, Saina did an encore.
En route to securing her third title at the Istora Senayan in Jakarta, Saina Nehwal was up against yet another Chinese ace - Wang Shixian in the quarters.
What unfolded was a match Saina Nehwal’s husband and fellow Indian badminton player Parupalli Kashyap later described as the “craziest match in Saina’s career.”
Having won the Swiss Open and Thailand Open earlier in the year, Saina Nehwal was in top form heading into the tournament. It was especially important since it was the final big tournament before the 2012 London Olympics.
In what turned out to be a 97-minute battle of attrition against the higher-ranked Chinese, Saina Nehwal took the first game 21-17 but was pegged back in the second game 23-21.
The two went toe-to-toe in the third game before Saina Nehwal showed nerves of steel to bag the match 21-19.
“They both had similar styles of play, gritty retrievers and neither had a winning finishing shot. They both fought till one just went off breath. I was drained just watching them,” Kashyap recalled.
Result: Saina Nehwal beat Wang Shixian 21-17, 21-23, 21-19
Commonwealth Games 2010 and 2018 gold medal matches
The Commonwealth Games have been a happy hunting ground for Saina Nehwal, with the Hyderabad player clinching gold in both the 2010 and 2018 editions.
Both matches were ones to behold.
In the 2010 final, Saina Nehwal played against Malaysia's Mew Choo Wong in New Delhi.
She struggled to find her flow early on and lost the first game 21-19 and was trailing 20-21 in the second game.
With her opponent on a match point, Saina Nehwal’s tap went towards the backline, prompting Wong to leave it thinking that it was out. The shuttle, however, landed just inside giving the Indian a lifeline.
Sania made full use of it as she picked up the next two points to close the second game 23-21, before clinching the match and the gold with a 21-13 win in the third game.
"It was the toughest match of my career. It was a big test for me because I have never won from a match point down. But I am happy I could win it for my country in front of my home crowd,” she said.
Result: Saina Nehwal beat Mew Choo Wong 19-21, 23-21, 21-13
Fast forward to 2018, Indian badminton fans were treated to a dream gold medal clash as Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu set up an all-Indian final at Gold Coast in Australia.
The match came at a time when PV Sindhu, on the back of her Rio 2016 silver and 2017 World Championships silver medal was gradually starting to eclipse Saina Nehwal as the torch-bearer of Indian badminton.
The younger Sindhu was clearly the in-form player going into the contest but Saina Nehwal took the game to her opponent from the get-go, controlling rallies and denying Sindhu any foothold in the match.
Saina Nehwal took the first game 21-18 but in the second, there was a role reversal as Sindhu went on the offensive and built up an 11-8 lead at the mid-break. Saina, however, fought back to take the tightly-contested game 23-21.
“I will put it as next to my Olympic medal and my world No.1 ranking (in terms of importance). So I would keep it somewhere there,” Saina, a 2016 Padma Bhushan awardee, said later.
Result: Saina Nehwal beat PV Sindhu 21-18, 23-21