Will this maiden mint gold in badminton?

Saina Nehwal...her racquet is always raised for India.-PTI

Armed with a superior fitness level, enhanced confidence and clearly chalked out goals, Saina Nehwal is ready for her challengers, mainly from China, in the London Olympics. Rakesh Rao analyses her chances.

Another edition of the Olympics is just over three months away. Medal aspirants and those making the numbers are all gearing up for what is the biggest sporting spectacle every four years. Many Indians have qualified to be in London and some more are waiting for the opportunity to make the grade.

Unlike old times, when only our hockey team carried the medal hopes of the nation, the scenario has changed for the better. Though our hockey team is no longer considered a world-beater, several individuals, in disciplines like shooting, archery, boxing, wrestling, tennis and badminton have done enough to raise hopes of being among the medals in the upcoming Olympics.

Among the Indian medal aspirants, Saina Nehwal's chances appear very bright. Currently ranked fifth in the world, Saina is the strongest non-Chinese woman badminton player in the game today. Already Saina is being seen as the one capable of preventing a possible Chinese medal sweep in the ladies singles.

Though five of the top six women in the world are Chinese, Saina will have to deal with only two of them since the Olympic qualification rules allow a maximum of three entries from a nation (barring the host), that too, if the country holds the top-four world ranking spots, as China does.

Barring one of these Chinese players, Saina does not enjoy a favourable head-to-head record against the rest. In fact, Saina is yet to beat the World number one Wang Yihan in five meetings.

In the Olympic arena, if results come as per rankings, the fourth seed Saina will not face a Chinese before the semifinals. Thereafter, a victory in the semifinal or the playoff for bronze ensures a medal.

These days, under coach P. Gopi Chand, Saina is leading a regimented life as she prepares to be at her best during the Games. As part of her preparations, Saina has lost five kilograms to improve her speed. “I lost weight the right way. I was on a good protein diet for a month. Initially, it was difficult but I got used to it in two-three weeks. After that, I ate well and I've not put on any weight. I am feeling good.”

These days Saina is gearing up for the Asian badminton championship followed by the India Open Super Series — the last event before the Olympic qualifiers are identified based on the world rankings as of May 3. The month of May is without competitions. Saina will be back to training ahead of the Singapore Open and Indonesia Open in June. Thereafter, it will be time for the big test in London.

“It will be tough in the Asian championship and the India Open. Let's see how better I do in these events. Thereafter, we have three months (for the Games). Luckily, the two tournaments in June will help me test my strokes and my fitness level. I will also learn from my mistakes. The last month before the Games will be very important.”

Saina is fast becoming an inspiration for the younger generation.-V.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

Saina, ranked second in the world for a few weeks in 2010, has managed to stay among the elite with some consistent displays. In most events, she has justified her seeding. Saina may not have many victories to show over higher-ranked players, but she can take heart from the fact that she has managed to avenge most of her defeats against lower-ranked players.

The last 12 months have brought mixed results for Saina. She played 18 events, including team championships, entered four finals and won the last one. The triumph in the Swiss Open in March was especially sweet for Saina since she defeated two Chinese rivals, including World number three Wang Shixian for the second successive time in three meetings.

Ask Saina about the leading Chinese players and she says, “I don't think they are superior. They are six or seven of them playing together. They all are in the top-20 in the world. They get to meet in the pre-quarterfinals or quarterfinals of Super Series events. It is almost decided that whosoever is better, gets a walkover or has an easy match. That's how they get to play the semifinals or final of every tournament. They are not so much under pressure.

“For us, (non-Chinese), it becomes difficult. Against us, everyone wants to fight and not give up. I being the only one from my country, there is a lot of pressure. That also plays on the mind. If only two or three Chinese play in a tournament, you can see on their faces. They become so nervous. Sometimes, they are so tense, that they don't even reach the final.”

At the same time, Saina acknowledges the Chinese for their planned approach. “They have produced so many good players. They have 3000 kids playing badminton. The game has become very popular in China and they have a good level. Again that has to do with the number of Olympic and World champions who have turned to coaching. We only have one coach (Gopi Chand) who was an All-England champion. We have many former players who are now coaches, but have not learnt many things.”

Looking ahead, Saina knows she needs to solve the ‘riddle' called Wang Yihan at least once before the Olympics. “When I last played Wang Yihan in the Super Series Final in December, I had just started improving (after a lean spell of about four months). Since then, I have beaten some of the other Chinese girls. I am sure over the next four tournaments, I will get to play her and beat her.

“The difference between us is not great. It is just that she has the confidence. Right now, the way I am playing, I think she is beatable. When I played her last, she was having a good run. Also, I did not have much time to train since I was playing so many tournaments. I only had two weeks to work on my speed and stamina. That was not enough. I needed a month which I got in February. Actually, from February this year, I see a big change in my game. If I play Wang Yihan now, it will be a different scene.”

So armed with a superior fitness level, enhanced confidence and clearly chalked out goals, Saina is ready for her challengers, mainly from China.

Saina versus the rest HEAD-TO-HEAD: SAINA (WORLD NO. 5) VERSUS OTHER TOP-10 PLAYERS Rank 1: Wang Yihan (China) 0-5 Rank 2: Wang Xin (China) 2-4 Rank 3: Wang Shixian (China) 2-1 Rank 4: Li Xuerui (China) 1-4 Rank 6: Jiang Yanjiao (China) 0-5 Rank 7: Tine Baun (Denmark) 3-3 Rank 8: Juliane Schenk (Germany) 5-3 Rank 9: Cheng Shao-Chieh (Chinese Taipei) 3-1 Rank 10: Inthanon Ratchanok (Thailand) 2-1