Saina Nehwal’s London Olympic bronze medal a gamechanger for Indian badminton
The singles bronze made her the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal in badminton. It also proved to be the spark that Indian shuttler PV Sindhu needed to win a historic silver at Rio 2016 and a bronze at Tokyo 2020.
Saina Nehwal’s podium finish at the historic Wembley Arena in London only inspired future generations of Indian badminton players, especially women, to pick up the racquet and dream big.
Here’s a look at Saina Nehwal’s Olympic medal journey.
Whisker away at Beijing and the vow for London
As a 16-year-old in 2006, Saina Nehwal was already a rising star in Indian women’s badminton having done extremely well in the junior circuit. She was also chosen for India’s 2006 Asian Games squad.
Having come under the wings of coach Pullela Gopichand – a former All England Championships winner – only strengthened her resolve to become a global superstar and the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Indian badminton player recalls, was their first target.
"We set a target of qualifying for the 2008 Beijing Games, and by the beginning of the year, I was sure of my spot. Gopi is a taskmaster and I trained really hard for the Olympics." - Saina Nehwal
At Beijing 2008, Saina Nehwal created history by becoming the first Indian women’s badminton player to reach the quarter-finals.
The youngster was in a good position to reach the semis and enter medal contention as well, but let a sizable lead slip in the third game of her quarter-final clash against Indonesia’s Maria Kristin Yulianti to get knocked out.
“Looking back, I realize I could have won a medal in Beijing. But one cannot expect too much when you are at your first Olympics. Of course, even today it hurts to think about losing at that stage,” she noted in a book titled My Olympic Journey.
But the moment Saina exited the court, her preparations for the London 2012 Olympics had already begun.
"I was focused on making up for this defeat at the next Olympics, in London. I remember I was off for practice the next morning at 5 am!"
Build up to the London 2012 moment
Over the next four years, Saina Nehwal won multiple BWF Grand Prix gold medals, five Superseries titles headlined by three Indonesia Opens, a Commonwealth Games gold at the 2010 edition in New Delhi, and several other accolades.
But for the 2009 Arjuna Award and Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna winner, the singular focus was on the 2012 London Olympics.
However, leading up to the main event, tragedy struck. A week before the Olympics, Saina Nehwal contracted a severe viral fever which, she admits, had consequences on her run at the Games.
Despite not being in peak condition, Saina Nehwal cruised through the group stage of the main event winning her two matches in straight games - a 21-9, 21-4 win over Sabrina Jaquet of Switzerland and a 21-4, 21-14 win over Belgium’s Lianne Tan.
In the Round of 16, Saina Nehwal faced Yao Jie but the China-born Dutch player could do little to disrupt the Indian ace’s march towards a medal. Saina won the match 21-14, 21-16.
In the quarter-finals, however, the Indian was up for a much tougher test against ‘old nemesis’ Tine Baun.
Against the three-time All England winner, Saina Nehwal was stretched but eventually emerged victorious by a 21-15, 22-20 scoreline in the quarters.
Heading into the semi-finals against China’s Wang Yihan, though, Saina Nehwal’s adrenaline rush had somewhat worn off and her pre-tournament troubles caught up with her in the clash against the eventual silver medallist.
“Unfortunately, at that crucial moment, I could not raise my game as the after-effects of the viral fever took their full toll. Yihan realized I was not moving too well and hustled me around court.
“The lack of stamina saw me surrender without a fight. I was disappointed. I had gone to London to win the gold,” she said.
Saina Nehwal’s Olympic medal at Wembley
But her journey wasn’t over just yet. She still had her bronze medal match against another Chinese badminton player Wang Xin.
Saina won the medal, but the moment of reckoning didn’t quite arrive the way she had visualized it.
Perhaps too eager to take the game to her opponent in the first game, an aggressive Saina Nehwal committed several unforced errors and ended up dropping the first game 21-18 against Xin Wang.
However, legging 1-0 in the second game, Xin twisted her right knee and was forced to retire, handing Saina Nehwal the bronze.
“I was extremely surprised when it happened. I wanted to win my medal by defeating my opponent," she said. "I was a bit rattled to see her in agony and went across to console her.”
Irrespective of how the medal came, it was a huge moment for both Saina Nehwal and Gopichand. Indian badminton had finally arrived at the Olympics and Saina Nehwal started it all.
“It was huge,” Saina Nehwal’s husband Parupalli Kashyap, also a badminton player, told ESPN. “Her podium ceremony was very emotional.
“Her feelings after the bronze medal match and the way it ended was of confusion but at the same time, she made it and she won the medal.”
“Saina has always been a huge motivating factor. Her achievements, her results, initially changed the mindset of all the badminton players at that point in time,” said Kashyap, who too made the men’s quarter-finals, the first time an Indian did so at the Summer Games.
Saina Nehwal lost in the second round at Rio 2016. She played with a knee injury and later regretted the decision to travel to Rio. And with the COVID-19 outbreak having a big impact on the qualifying events for the Tokyo Olympics, Saina Nehwal, unfortunately, failed to make the cut for the Summer Games in Japan.