Excellent bargain

Saina Nehwal...her gold lifted India to the second spot in the final medals tally.

Badminton as a spectator sport in the country never witnessed such a keen following as it did during the Games in New Delhi. Barring the first few days of the team and individual championships, the stands were packed, with the crowd waiting to watch Saina in action. By Rakesh Rao.

The rise in status of Saina Nehwal in the past two years in world badminton has clearly made her a very popular figure and one of the most loved sportspersons in the country. If there was any further evidence needed of her ever-growing stature among the nation's sports followers, one had to be at the Siri Fort Complex on the concluding afternoon of the Commonwealth Games.

A packed house cheered Saina all the way during her pulsating 70-minute triumph over Malaysian second-seed Wong Mew Choo. And, not just that. Every spectator would possibly share Saina's moment of triumph in times to come without forgetting to add, “I was there when she won the gold that put India ahead of England in the final medals tally.”

Badminton as a spectator sport in the country never witnessed such a keen following as it did during the Games in New Delhi. Barring the first few days of the team and individual championships, the stands were packed, with the crowd waiting to watch Saina in action.

As it turned out, Saina's “most memorable victory” where she fought off a match-point in the second game to win 19-21, 23-21, 21-13 was just the kind of finale the Games needed.

With the last gold of the Games coming India's way and putting it in the second spot as per the gold count, it also became one of the biggest talking points among the other Indian medal winners who watched Saina fight from the brink of defeat to live up to the expectations.

“This was the toughest match of my career,” said Saina soon after the tension-filled match where Wong almost pulled it off, having lost to the Indian in the last four encounters including two at the same venue.

“God helped me win today. When I was a match-point down, it was like a shock. It was a big match and winning it means a lot to me. Even many years from now, those present here will always remember how Saina won the gold. It is a proud feeling to win before my own people.”

In fact, India owed a lot to the Malaysian shuttlers for stopping England in three finals. This went a long way in preventing England from adding even a single gold on the final day.

World number one Lee Chong Wei defeated Rajiv Ouseph 21-10, 21-8 in just 30 minutes to keep the men's singles gold.

In mixed doubles, Koo Kien Kiet and Chin Eei Hui overpowered Nathan Robertson and Jenny Wallwork 22-20, 21-12. England's last chance to win a gold medal was dashed in men's doubles when Koo Kein Kiet and Boon Heong Tan made short work of Robertson and Anthony Clark 21-19, 21-14.

Indeed, Malaysia was the strongest nation on view and it proved its superiority without being stretched in the mixed team championship. India played to its seeding and took the silver ahead of England, which maintained its record of winning a team championship medal each time since its inception.

Making India proud... P. Kashyap won the men's singles bronze.

From India's perspective, there were plenty of gains. The gold in the women's doubles was a pleasant surprise as Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponappa upstaged the top seeds, Sari Shinta Mulia and Yao Lei, 21-16, 21-19.

It was indeed a revelation for most present in the arena to find Ashwini, from the backcourt, hitting some of the hardest smashes ever seen from an Indian lady shuttler. With the experience of Jwala standing in good stead, the duo contributed to the gold tally.

Jwala excelled on the forecourt and left very little hope for the rivals, who had beaten the Indians in two previous encounters. After the victory, Jwala shed tears of joy and hugged Ashwini as the stands erupted, with the Oscar winning song “Jai Ho” playing in the background.

“It was unbelievable. I rarely cry but I was too emotional at that point. I hope our victory puts more focus on doubles. Not many are aware that our doubles teams are doing consistently well. I hope the doubles players get their due,” was Jwala's wish.

Ashwini, who joined Jwala only last year, was all praise for her senior partner. “She kept telling me to take my time before serving and slowed me down. That really helped. I can't describe this moment. It has not sunk in yet,” said the 23-year-old, holding her first individual international medal.

Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponappa, the women's doubles winners.

Also commendable was the performance of bronze winner P. Kashyap. Before pipping 2006 bronze winner Chetan Anand in the match for the third place, Kashyap had scored over World number 16 Rajiv Ouseph in India's first ever 3-0 triumph over England in the team semifinals. He then went down gallantly to Lee Chong Wei in the team final. In singles, Kashyap's high point came when he upstaged former All England champion and fourth seed Muhammad Hafiz Hashim in the quarterfinals but could not prevent second seed Ouseph from settling a score. Overall, the disappointment of the second-seeded mixed doubles pair of Jwala and Diju losing to eventual champions Malaysia's Koo Kien Kiet and Chin Eei Hui in the quarterfinals did not hurt.

Eventually, India's best ever tally of two gold medals, one silver and a bronze was an excellent bargain.