While the entire nation revels in the creditable performances of the Indian cricket team at the World Cup, India’s badminton queen, Saina Nehwal stands on the cusp of glory at the game’s very own Shangri La, the All England Badminton Championships. In a few hours, she will be playing her maiden final in Birmingham against the reigning World Champion, Carolina Marin of Spain, against whom she has a 3-0 career win record till date.

Consider the hard facts here. Taking away the Olympics and the World Championships, the All England is probably the most important event in an international badminton player’s schedule – akin to the position Wimbledon holds in the world of tennis. And to date, only two Indian men have managed to scale those lofty heights and be crowned Champion at the All England: Prakash Padukone in 1980 and Nehwal’s ex coach P Gopichand in 2001. No Indian woman has ever won this prestigious BWF Super Series Premium event. As the trailblazer for Indian women in the sport of badminton, it is perhaps fitting that Nehwal gets this opportunity to represent her country at the highest stage as she prepares for one of the biggest moments in her badminton career.

Being India’s finest badminton player over the last five years, you would think what’s the big deal in reaching a Championship final? After all, she has won many Grand Prix and Super Series titles over the past few years. A bronze in the 2012 Olympics has cemented her place in the pantheon of Indian Olympic legends. Why then, is this match so important?

Laying her ghosts to rest

Because today, Nehwal will not just be fighting Carolina Marin for the title. She will be fighting to lay all her ghosts to rest. The unfortunate spate of injuries which cruelly knocked her off her A-game. The hard decision to move away from her long-term coach and mentor Gopichand, the man who helped mould her into a world class player. And more off-court controversies than you can shake a fist at. The totally avoidable incident around the Padma Bhushan nomination in January, when it appeared like she was trying to force the government’s hand. The withdrawals from a few national tournaments when the federation cried foul that she was choosing self over national interest and so on. Not to mention the malicious whispers of a star not being able to take the heat as upcoming talent started to make their presence felt.

You could explain the injuries. After all, badminton is a sport which depends so much on reflexes and speed on court that all top players almost inevitably go through such patches. But being the first Indian woman to do well on the world stage brought with it such an excess baggage of pressure – that like it or not, Nehwal started feeling the heat and slipped up a bit.

But like all great champions, she gritted her teeth and redefined herself. Over the last six months, with her new coach she regained her fitness and started clawing her way back into the game’s highest levels. And today she is finally back to doing what she does best – taking on the best in the world and beating them with speed, power and sheer tactical nous.

Chinese wall

When Nehwal first started making waves, a special feature was the way she started beating the indomitable Chinese contingent. When her game drifted away, the Chinese came back with a vengeance. But now again, the old Nehwal is back. With a couple of strong wins against the likes of Wang Yihan and Sun Yu, This diminutive 24-year-old World no. 3 is on the verge of making history.

On Saturday, she told reporters in Birmingham that many people think that she should get to the final anyway – and that she should win every tournament she plays. So she just watches her favorite Shah Rukh Khan movies and gets on with it.

Whatever be the result this evening – Saina Nehwal has got on with it and has made the nation proud already. On International Women’s Day, it is up to her to craft the pathway to her own greatness. A country waits with bated breath.

Rathindra Basu (@rathindrabasu) lives, breathes, sleeps sports and is forever waiting for the next Indian sporting triumph. Since this usually takes much time and infinite patience he also listens to music, reads voraciously and eats almost anything that moves.