Saina Nehwal on Saturday created history by becoming the first Indian to win an Olympic Games bronze medal in badminton, though under fortuitous circumstances, as her world number two Chinese opponent retired from the play-off because of a knee injury.
The 22-year-old Saina was trailing 18-21, 0-1 in the high-voltage bronze medal play-off match when her second seeded opponent Xin Wang retired hurt, giving India an unexpected medal without having to sweat much.
Saina also became the second Indian woman to win an Olympic medal, after Karnam Malleswari’s weightlifting bronze in 2000 Sydney Olympics.
With the addition of Saina’s bronze, India’s medal collection in the ongoing Olympics has gone upto three with pistol shooter Vijay Kumar (silver) and seasoned marksman Gagan Narang (bronze) being the other medal winners.
The packed Wembly arena, which had a seizable chunk of vociferous Indian supporters cheering for Saina, were taken by surprise when the script suddenly changed with Wang getting injured towards the very end of the first game.
Wang got herself medical attention and even went in for the second game but conceded the match after just one point. A thunderous roar greeted Saina when it was announced that she had won the bronze medal and Wang had retired.
“I still can’t believe that I have won a medal. In badminton, I never believed that India could win a medal because the competition is so tough. It is a dream come true for me,” Saina said after the match.
“I had trained hard and there was a lot of expectation. I initially thought that she was just taking rest as she was tiring, but then I realised she was injured. It’s sad that she got injured, but I was confident of beating her as I was coming into rhythm,” she said.
Saina said her defeat against top ranked player Yihan Wang of China yesterday was still rankling her as she had adopted a wrong strategy against her.
“Today’s match was crucial. But I was still thinking about what happened yesterday. But as the game went, I began to play better. I felt that she was tiring and I had my chance,” the ace shuttler said.
Saina, seeded fourth, started off well by taking an early lead but the Chinese clawed back and the score moved neck and neck till 6-6. From then on, the Chinese increased the lead by not allowing Saina to play her natural game.
Wang took a lead of 16-10 but the Indian again showed her tenacity by reducing the margin and engaging her opponent in long rallies, a tactics which she could not do in the semifinal match.
The turning point came when the score was 20-18 in the first game. In her bid to finish off the game, Wang leaped into the air and unleashed a blistering smash from the baseline but landed awkwardly and injured her left knee in the process.
She bandaged her knee and took the court for the second game but conceded after just one point, much to the delight of the Indian spectators and IOA officials who were present at the venue.
“Today my strategy was to engage her in long rallies and it did work to some extent. Yesterday also we had the same strategy, but it did not work. I should have tried something else and played my own game instead of trying to match her,” Saina said.
“I had never won a match like this before. May be, the medal was written for me. I have always wanted an Olympic medal. I always wanted to see India’s national flag going up at the podium,” she said.
The moment it was known that she was the bronze medal, Saina first waved at her coach P Gopichand, who was sitting on the coach’s chair, and then acknowledged the cheers from the spectators, most of whom were Indians.