Saina falters at the doorstep of victory

By V. Krishnaswamy, IANS,

Beijing : Saina Nehwal’s badminton challenge at the Beijing Olympics came to an abrupt end, just as she seemed to have reached the doorstep of victory in the women’s singles quarter-finals Wednesday.

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The 18-year-old prodigious talent from Hyderabad played amazingly well. However, she lapsed into errors in the later stages of the third and final game to lose the 64-minute battle resembling a wildly swinging pendulum 28-26, 14-21, 15-21 to Maria Kristin Yulianti of Indonesia at the Beijing University of Technology Gymnasium here.

In the end, it was Saina’s inexperience and inability to read what was going wrong at crucial stages that spelt disaster in a match where she was leading 11-3 in the decider.

“I didn’t realise the drift and I didn’t adjust to it. It was too late, by the time I realised what was going wrong,” said a very dejected Saina. “It was a good show, but frankly the match was mine.”

Speaking about her errors in the third game, she added: “I made a lot of mistakes and erred in judging the shuttle. In the third game, I was dog tired. I could not read the drift once I changed sides. On many occasions, I expected her shuttle to land outside and left it only to see it land inside. I just could not read that. That is also why I knocked a few shots wide and long.”

With Saina’s exit, India’s badminton campaign ended as Anup Sridhar was out in the second round of the men’s singles competition Monday.

Ironically, Saina and Yulianti were the only unseeded players to reach the quarterfinals, having eliminated higher seeds in the pre-quarters.

Saina, coming into the match high on confidence following her stunning win over World Championships runner-up and fourth seed Wang Chen of Hong Kong, looked set to move into the quarters as she had Yulianti, ranked six spots below her, on the ropes at various stages.

Yulianti’s tenacity and ability to hang in there paid rich dividends. Despite having never played the Indian before, she read her well. Yulianti remarked: “She was always attacking, so I had to be patient. Towards the end it looked she was rushing her shots.”

She added: “In the first game I felt overwhelmed. So I wasn’t playing my best. But I recovered in the second, where she looked pressured. In the third I thought that you don’t get a chance to play (Olympics) here often, so I told myself to do better.”

Both Saina and Yulianti seemed to be sparring and measuring each other in the early stages of the first game, as they were neck and neck till 9-9. Then slowly but steadily Saina pulled ahead with Yulianti misjudging a couple of shots and also jabbing the bird wide on another occasion. Saina, on a high, also effected a great jump smash and with Yulianti again hitting wide, the Indian was 15-9 up.

The Indonesian did make an effort to stay, but Saina rushed off to a 20-16 advantage setting up four game points. But that was when Yulianti reined in the Indian, who seemed anxious and made mistakes.

The game stretched into a marathon, with Saina finding it difficult to close it. It was in the ninth game point that Saina finally sealed the first game 28-26 in 28 minutes. Yulianti herself had two game points, but was unable to capitalise on them.

Far from letting the first game’s loss bother her, Yulianti zipped into an early lead at 10-3 in the second game and never allowed the Indian to make a significant comeback. She won the game 21-14 to send the clash into the decider.

Into the third and final game, Saina after being 2-2, moved ahead with a series of points, as Yulianti committed errors. Grabbing the serve at 5-3, Saina took six points in a row on her own serve to lead 11-3. That’s when the cross-over took place.

No sooner had that happened, fortunes, too, reversed. Taking back the service to make it 4-11, Yulianti took five points in a row to reduce the gap to 9-11. She had perceptibly slowed down the game as Saina was rushing.

Also unable to read the drift, which had slowed the flight of the bird towards her side of the court, Saina kept leaving the bird, which consistently fell well inside or on the line.

Saina did manage to break that streak by taking a point to go 12-9 up, but soon the Indian’s serve deserted her. Yulianti once again put pressure and as Saina erred in judgement, the Indonesian won nine points in a row and was suddenly sniffing victory at 19-12.

A last ditch-effort saw Saina come to 15-20, but then it was curtains for her as Yulianti wrapped up 21-15.

Saina, while admitting her mistakes, added she was not over-confident with a big eight-point lead in third game. “Not at all. In fact I was not thinking about winning at all. I was just playing my game. Even at match point you cannot take it for granted,” she said.

“The match changed course so fast in the third game that I lost confidence. Then, I was also quite tired and all that combined to my defeat.”

As for her feelings on her Olympic debut, she said: “I’m both happy and sad to have come this far and still lose a match despite dominating it. It was my match and I should have won it.”

The loss notwithstanding, it was a brave performance by Saina, who has grown up dreaming of an Olympic gold. She gave everything in her maiden appearance and went out a touch away from a medal.