At the turn of the millennium, even reaching quarter-finals of any Badminton World Federation event was considered to be a good achievement for Indian shuttlers. But badminton in the country has come a long way since then. As things stand now, anything short of a podium finish at the BWF World Tour events or a medal in major competitions is considered to be a failed campaign for the Indian contingent.
There is no doubting the fact that Saina Nehwal showed the country what walking down that path meant at the 2009 Indonesia Open. For the London 2012 Olympic Games bronze medallist, the journey towards the podium perhaps began that day in June.
The teenager stunned the world when she became the first Indian women’s singles player to clinch a four-star Philippines Open in 2006 and then claimed the 2008 Chinese Taipei Grand Prix crown while also reaching the quarter-finals of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
It was a period when the Chinese dominated the women’s singles department with Denmark’s Tine Rasmussen (Baun) being the only player of non-Chinese origin to have won more than one Superseries title since the new format started in 2007. In fact, Malaysia’s Wong Mew Choo was the only other shuttler outside China or Hong Kong to stand atop the podium in the highest tier of BWF tournament circuit.
Nehwal had broken into world top-10 by the end of 2008 and the world junior title that year had underlined her prowess as a future star. But she had reached just two quarter-finals of the five Superseries events before reaching Jakarta to play the Indonesia Open.
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Seeded sixth, Nehwal began with a comfortable victory over Petya Nedelcheva in the first round. She fought back from a game down against Germany’s Juliane Schenk in the round of 16 and then again had to dig deep before getting the better of Korean veteran Hwang Hye-youn to become the only non-Chinese in the last four.
The semi-final was topsy-turvy affair as both Nehwal and Lu Lan, seventh seed from China, stayed neck-and-neck till the very end of the opening game. The Indian managed to hold her nerves to take the opening game. She then fought back from 0-5 down to level scores at 13-13 and make it to her first Superseries final with a straight-games victory.
On June 21, 2009: she was up against another Chinese star in the final, third seed Wang Lin.
Here is how the final against Wang Lin went:
Nehwal had lost to Wang in the quarter-finals of the Singapore Open in the preceeding week and was nervous going into her first major final.
The Chinese third seed raced to a quick lead in the opening game and drew first blood as Nehwal continued to make errors.
And things only got worse when Wang opened up a 4-1 lead in the second game with Nehwal even guilty of making a service error. But that was when the Indian changed her tactics and began slowing down the pace.
“We had discussed this but I was not following the plan. Atik (Jauhari) sir told me not to play drivers and half smashes,” she had said then. “The second game was very important. I blunted her strokes and she was tired in the decider.”
The change of pace meant that Wang was sucked into longer rallies and Nehwal took control of the net exchanges. It was still a close call as Wang bagged four straight points to take a 17-16 lead in the second game. It was at this juncture that Nehwal showed how mentally strong she was as she kept engaging her opponent in long rallies and forced a decider on the second attempt.
As Nehwal said, the third and final game was a completely one-sided affair once she fought back from a 2-5 deficit to level the scores at 7-7.
Nehwal then went on to win 15 of the next 17 points, dominating her opponent by playing some deceptive drops and booming smashes to win 12-21, 21-18, 21-9 victory in 48 minutes and create history.
The Istora Senayan in Jakarta became Nehwal’s happy hunting ground as she reached four consecutive Indonesia Open finals and won three of them (2009, 2010, 2012). In his column for Outlook India, Pullela Gopichand wrote that Nehwal’s wins at Indonesia Open were “very big and very special” and added:
“To win consistently when the Chinese were on top of the world was a superb achievement. She showed to people across the world how the Chinese wall could be broken. It was, in fact, Saina versus China. The moment Saina could break in, other countries, whether it was Japan or Thailand or Spain or Denmark, many of them started to find ways to breach the Chinese bastion.”
Most importantly, the feisty teenager’s first success at one of the most revered badminton venues showed that Indian badminton was finally taking wings. It was a turning point for not just Saina Nehwal, but the sport in the country too, which has now given fans two Olympic medals to celebrate in the years that followed.