Time for Saina to prove her mettle

Saina’s triumphs in the Swiss Open, Thailand Open and the elite Indonesian Open this year have raised hopes of her being on the podium in London. By Rakesh Rao.

For once, India’s expectations of a medal from the Olympic badminton arena are in order. The form and preparedness of Saina Nehwal provides the biggest reason for this optimism. Ranked fourth in the world, the 22-year-old has proved beyond doubt that she has the game and temperament to take on the three medal favourites from China.

This year, Saina’s triumphs in the Swiss Open, Thailand Open and the elite Indonesian Open have raised hopes of her being on the podium in London. Her confidence is high, especially after ending the 30-match winning streak of the All England champion, Li Xuerui, in the Indonesian Open final.

Since then, China has opted to field Li Xuerui instead of the Asian Games champion, Wang Shixian, in their Olympic squad. Wang Yihan and Wang Xin, ranked number one and two in the world, are the other two members.

The Chinese trio enjoys a better head-to-head record against Saina. Though Saina is not expected to play a Chinese till the semifinals, there are several players in the fray who have beaten her at least once in the past 18 months. Korea’s Youn Joo Bae has beaten Saina twice in their last three meetings.

Former World number one, Denmark’s Tine Baun, Germany’s Juliane Schenk, Taipei’s Shao Cheih Cheng and compatriot Tzu Ying Tai, Thailand’s Inthanon Ratchanok and Japan’s Sayaka Sato are the others in the Olympic draw with a victory over Saina since January last year.

As seen in the 2011 World Championship, the Wembley arena suits those with higher level of endurance since the shuttle does not travel as fast as it does at Asian venues. To meet the challenge, Saina has specifically worked on her fitness and stamina like never before.

Meanwhile, P. Kashyap does not inspire much confidence in the men’s singles. The 21st-ranked Indian is placed 18th on the entry list for the Olympics. Kashyap was extremely lucky to qualify for the Olympics, ahead of Ajay Jayaram, after getting the necessary points following an unexpected walkover from World number four, China’s Chen Jin, in the Indian Open.

The stupendous win against World number three and top seed Chen Long on way to the semifinals of the Indonesian Open in June remains Kashyap’s biggest career-victory. However, barring this, he has not beaten a single higher seed.

Doubles stars G. Jwala and Ashwini Ponappa, bronze-medallist at the last World Championship, go into their first Olympics with hopes of swimming against the tide. With just five victories from 16 matches this year, they did just enough to qualify. It will take a lot from this inspired pair to get closer to a medal in London.

In mixed doubles, Jwala and V. Diju have lost nine out of the 16 matches they played this year. Only a die-hard optimist would expect the pair to win a medal.

Since only 16 pairs will be in the fray, two victories are needed to be in the medal-round. Realistically, it appears a herculean task for Jwala and Diju to reach that far.