Saina Nehwal may have fallen at the final hurdle of the BWF World Championship in Indonesia, but she can once again be proud of her achievements. Nehwal has planted India’s flag time and again in uncharted territories of the badminton circuit, and this was no different.

By contesting the final, she became the first Indian to feature in a World Championship final since the inception of the tournament in 1977. It remains an incredible feat. She was a winner going into the final and she is one coming out of it, even if Nehwal may feel differently in the immediate aftermath of a 16-21, 19-21 defeat to World No. 1, and now two-time world champion, Carolina Marin of Spain.

The best final line-up possible

It was a fitting finale to what is, alongside the Olympics, badminton’s marquee tournament. Jakarta witnessed a riveting contest between the two best ladies singles players on the circuit. Nehwal, the World No. 2, had banished her demons by defeating her nemesis Wang Yihan from China en route to the final. Marin, the defending champion, had gradually grown stronger through the week after a sluggish start.

In the semi-final against Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun, Marin had recovered from 8-13 down in the final game to win 10 straight points and eventually notch up a final berth. That’s what the best players do. They cash in on the slightest of opportunities and build up near unstoppable momentum. Nehwal witnessed it first hand in the final and she could not disrupt Marin’s rhythm.

The Indian ace took early leads in both games before Marin stormed back. When Nehwal was up 7-5 in the first, the Spaniard responded with six straight points. A superb cross-court drop at the net sealed her sixth. When Nehwal was up an even more dominant 12-6 in the second, the Spaniard responded with seven consecutive points including twice returning smashes she had little right to even reach.

Clever play, but it still wasn’t enough

Against any other opponent, Nehwal’s performance on the day would have been more than enough for a win. She had shrewdly, though unspectacularly, notched up healthy leads to stay in within a shout of the gold medal. Marin was visibly faster on the court – enabling her to reach shots no other player would – and her smashes had more bite than Nehwal’s but the Indian was clever enough to work on her opponent and grind points out.

Nehwal showed her range too: From smashes down the line to decisive body smashes; from deceptive flicks into the back alley to an incredible drop-shot return off a Marin smash late in the match. At 17-18 down in the second game, Marin pounced on Nehwal’s weak serve to draw level before the Indian’s misjudgment gifted the Spaniard the lead. It was that kind of a contest. A point here and there and the result may well have been different.

Facing two championship points Nehwal miraculously returned a body smash, which would have been a winner 99 times out of 100, to stay in the match. Marin, however, won the next point to become the first European player to win back-to-back World Championships.

A non-Chinese rivalry

The Marin-Nehwal rivalry is taking off and fast becoming one to savour. It comes as a breath of fresh air following the unrelenting Chinese dominance of the sport. This was the pair’s fifth ever meeting, four of which have been finals, and the third this year. The record reads 3-2 in favour of the Indian but the last two, also the biggest two, have gone to Marin.

In January this year, Nehwal had beaten Marin in front of her home crowd in an enthralling contest to win the Syed Modi (Indian) Grand Prix Gold title. Marin then responded in style in March by beating her Indian opponent in the final of the All England Championships held in Birmingham. Both of these matches went into the third game.

Over the last two years, Marin first closed the gap on Nehwal and is now beginning to exert her dominance. They have one thing in common though: both have crossed the Chinese hurdles. Now, they can focus on each other.

Saina the winner

All said and done, the 2015 BWF World Championships were a grand success for Nehwal. As mentioned, she became the first Indian to reach the final and pick up a silver medal. Indian players have earned only four bronze medals in 22 World Championship events: Prakash Padukone in 1983, Jwala Gutta/Ashwini Ponnapa in 2011, and PV Sindhu twice in 2013 and 2014.

It added to Nehwal’s list of major firsts for Indian badminton. She was the first Indian shuttler to win a medal at the Olympics (a bronze in London 2012). She was the first Indian woman (and only the second Indian after Prakash Padukone) to be ranked No. 1 in the world.

The event was also the first time Nehwal had truly beaten her long-time nemesis Yihan. That too at the quarter-final stage, which she had failed to clear in five previous attempts. Her record against the Chinese read 2-9 before this tournament.

Of Nehwal’s two earlier wins, one came through Yihan’s retirement, and the other was achieved when Yihan was visibly unfit. Thus, a satisfying victory over the current world number six was a first for her. Her euphoric reaction on winning the final point of that match said as much.

The tournament as a whole was a great mental triumph for Nehwal. A silver medal is another giant leap towards greater things. Marin may be the latest big hurdle in the coming years, but Nehwal will find a way of crossing it sooner rather than later. She always has.