Rampaging India underlined its prowess as an all-round unit when they hammered Malaysia 3-1 to lift their first mixed team gold in the Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast on Monday.
For years, India had been struggling against top badminton nations in mixed team championships due to the lack of depth in the doubles events. They lost out on a medal four years ago in Glasgow due to the same reason.
But on Monday, the mixed doubles combination of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Ashwini Ponnappa came back from a four-point deficit in the decider to beat Peng Soon Chan and Liu ying Goh 21-14, 15-21, 21-15.
World number 2 Kidambi Srikanth then demolished two-time men’s singles champion Lee Chong Wei 21-17, 21-14 in 48 minutes and it was only fitting that Saina Nehwal, who started India’s rise, sealed the gold medal with a 21-11, 19-21, 21-9 win over Soniia Cheah to create history.
The only reversal being the loss of men’s doubles combination of Chirag Shetty and Satwik.
Leader Ponnappa hands India the lead
India had obviously put a lot of value on winning the opening mixed doubles match by deciding to once again field Satwik and Ponnappa and the world number 51 pair came home in a nerve wracking 65-minute encounter against Chan and Goh.
Satwik and Ponnappa began with a flourish racing to a 13-8 lead and build on it to clinch the opening game rather easily. But the change of ends also brought a chance in fortune as the Indian pair was always playing catch up all the while.
However, none of the exchanges in the first two games predicted a possibility of a decider that turned on its head just when it looked like the Indians were down and out.
The Malaysians seemed to have found their mojo after winning the second game and were out-dueling the Indians with their superior defence and had taken a 12-8 lead when Ponnappa came up with an inspired show.
The 28-year-old constantly kept talking to Satwik between points in a bid to keep him calm but at the same time surprised her opponents with a couple of flick serves as the Indians took seven points in a row to take a 15-12 lead.
The run of play also built the confidence of Satwik, who began finding the range of his strokes and came up with a couple of audacious cross court drives to force the Malaysians into submission.
Srikanth tames Chong Wei
The high adrenaline of the mixed doubles encounter seemed to have rubbed on Kidambi Srikanth as well. The world number 2 had never even won a game against the Malaysian in their earlier four matches and their first tussle in over three years for crucial to the direction the final would take.
The 25-year-old was lucky with a couple of net chords to take a 11-8 lead at the first break and though Chong Wei managed to level scores at 14-14, the Indian had more determination and fire power as he unleashed a flurry of jump smashes to earn four game points. The Malaysian managed to save one game point but Srikanth once again beat the former world number one with a down the line smash to take the opening game.
The second game was vintage Srikanth as the mixed things up brilliantly to keep Chong Wei on his toes and race to a 11-5 lead. There was very little the two-time Commonwealth Games men’s singles champion could do to stop the rampaging Indian, including a 38-shot rally in which the Indian dived twice to keep the shuttle in play and then forced his opponent to push a drive out.
Chong Wei did save two match points but it was yet another down the line jump smash that gave India a 2-0 lead.
Malaysia managed to narrow the gap when Rio Olympics silver medallist V Shem Goh and Wee Kiong Tan staved off a spirited challenge from Satwik and Shetty 21-15, 22-20.
Nehwal keeps her nerves
But that brought Saina Nehwal on the court and the 2010 women’s singles gold medallist was not going to let this slip out of India’s hand despite the spirited fight back from Soniia Cheah.
She was a bit slow to get off the blocks and Soniia Cheah managed to take a 9-11 lead in the opening game, raising hopes of a fight. But the 28-year-old former world number one simply raised the bar after the break as she moved Cheah all around the court and caught her on the wrong foot with her cross court sliced drops and half smashes to clinch 12 straight points and the opening game.
The second game was a much tighter affair with Cheah fighting back from 7-3 deficit to close in on 11-10 at the break. The Malaysian then took a medical break to tape up her bruised fingers and then clinched four straight points to take a 15-13 lead.
She then engaged Nehwal in long rallies and at times surprised her opponent with powerful down the line shots to force a decider.
The world number 29 seemed to have found a different gear as she retrieved anything that was thrown at her and the game plan of going for the lines at every opportunity almost paid off as she led Nehwal by a point at 8-9.
But it was too good to last as Nehwal then clinched 13 points in a row to clinch the match and the tie.