Before the Olympic Games, Saina Nehwal’s form suggested genuine medal potential – and so far her performances have only enhanced that reputation.
The manner of tonight’s victory over Yao Jie underlined the talented Indian’s status as the most likely threat to China’s stranglehold on the Olympic podium’s top step in Women’s Singles.
Nehwal, who has trimmed down by more than five kilos in preparation for London 2012, has flown under the radar, progressing steadily and easily through the Group Stage. Her latest match against the 35-year-old Dutch veteran was billed as the Commonwealth champion’s first real test and she passed with distinction.
The look of steely determination on Nehwal’s face as she marched onto centre court in Wembley Arena was a sign of things to come. The 22-year-old took control in the opening game, won it 21-14 – to the approving roar of a sizeable contingent of Indian fans – and never looked back.
Coached by 2001 All England champion, Pullela Gopichand, Nehwal maintained her momentum and focus to wrest the second game 21-16 and ease into the quarter-finals.
“The support from all the Indians was inspiring today. I got a bit tense, moreso than nervous, in the second (game) but my coach kept me calm and centred. It was good to win in two games. I know there is a lot of expectation especially from home but this is my second Olympic Games and it is a games I am very well prepared and ready for,” declared the winner.
Tine Baun’s dream of an Olympic medal continues but under the saddest circumstances. Her opponent Sayaka Sato suffered a tournament-ending knee injury and, despite her best efforts to continue, was forced to retire while leading 15-14. Her tearful departure was heart-breaking.
“It’s never nice to see your opponent get injured. I felt so sorry for her and wish her a speedy recovery. I have to remain focused now. After a bad start in the game I began to find my rhythm and that is something I can take with confidently into the quarter-finals,” said the 33-year-old.
In Men’s Singles, Chinese teammates Chen Long and Chen Jin came through after suffering early scares against Wong Wing Ki and Marc Zwiebler respectively. Hong Kong representative, Wong, was beaten 17-21 17-21 while the German snatched the first set off Chen Jin but that was as good as it got for the European champion.
“I tried everything but it was not my day but overall it has been a great Olympic experience for me,” said Zwiebler, who lost 21-19 12-21 9-21.
In the battles of the reinstated Women’s Doubles pairs there was a lot for which to play – unexpected shots at the semi-finals and even the prospect of an Olympic medal. The Russian duo of Nina Vislova and Valeria Sorokina and Canadians Michelle Li and Alex Bruce seized this priceless opportunity, booking semi-final places with victories over their South African (Michelle Edwards/Annari Viljoen) and Australian (Renuga Veeran/Leanne Choo) rivals 21-9 21-7 and 21-9 18-21 21-18 respectively.
When asked about the day’s events, Sorokina was just relieved to secure victory and move into the semi-finals.
“It has been a strange day. We found out we were back in the tournament and immediately started to prepare mentally for the challenge. The win looked easy but it was more difficult than it appeared but now we have this second chance, we want to prove that we are worth it and push for a medal,” said the Russian.
It was a bitter-sweet day for Denmark’s Christinna Pedersen. The elegant Dane had advanced to the Mixed Doubles semi-finals earlier in the day (alongside partner Joachim Fischer) but a stuttering performance against No. 4 seed Japanese pair, Mizuki Fujii and Reika Kakiiwa, in Women’s Doubles – partnered by Kamilla Rytter Juhl – saw her double-medal hopes evaporate in straight games 22-10 21-10.
“We struggled with the speed of the shuttle today and the Japanese defended very well. It’s a chance gone given the draw we found ourselves with and that is very disappointing as we have been playing well,” noted Pedersen.