London: Saina Nehwal is not the first at these Olympics to find out how difficult it is to breach the Great Wall of China, as it were, where certain sports are concerned.
Table tennis players and divers from other countries, too, for instance, could only shake their heads in astonishment when confronted by a series of Chinese opponents standing in their path to win a medal.
Whether China will be able to garner the most number of gold and overall medals as in the previous Olympics (100 in Beijing, with 51 gold) has become one of the most discussed aspects of the London Games.
China and the US have been locked in a neck-and-neck battle for medal supremacy, with the latter moving marginally ahead on Friday. With track and field events—which the US traditionally dominates—yet to begin, the dice seems loaded against the Chinese this time. But nobody is sure what surprises the Chinese may have in store.
But to get back to badminton, the semi-final line-up for the women’s singles had three Chinese players and Nehwal; so even if she had beaten Yihan Wang, the ace Indian shuttler had no escape from clashing with another of her compatriots in the final.
Almost: Nehwal can get a bronze medal if she wins her next match.
Such calculations were, of course, reduced to idle and pointless speculation once the match began and the trend of play started emerging. Within 42 minutes (39 actual playing time), Nehwal’s aspirations of making it to the final had been dashed, Wang’s superiority amply evident from the 21-13, 21-13 scoreline.
But disappointment at Nehwal’s defeat must be tempered by the knowledge that Wang is the world No. 1 whom she had not beaten in five earlier meetings. In a crunch match, she upped her game several notches, and was through her business without breaking into too much of a sweat.
“She was too far ahead of me,” Nehwal admitted after the match. “She had greater speed, sound tactics, and I made too many errors.” There was, perhaps, just a tinge of regret in her tone—but no more than a hint—at missing out on a gold or silver, but she was not into making lame excuses.
She waved away suggestions that she may have been fatigued, accepted that she was forced into errors. “The defeat had nothing to do with the early start (9am). I was struggling to make my strokes and I was not moving well. Perhaps, this has something to do with nervousness.”
The scoreline precluded any hogwash explanations. The defeat was clear and severe, but it is important to consider that this was not for want of Nehwal trying. She tried everything in her repertoire—slowing or hastening the pace of the game, getting Wang involved in long rallies, using deft drop shots, adroit play at the net et al. But the Chinese had an answer to anything thrown at her by Nehwal—and more.
She was considerably quicker in court coverage, moved for the “kill smash” given half an opportunity, and generally had the Indian on a not-so-merry runaround. Just what the gulf between the world No. 1 and No. 5 can mean in a sport like badminton was made apparent.
Nehwal’s opponent in the play-off for the bronze is Li Xuerui, ranked world No. 4. This should be a darn sight, easier than playing the No. 1; but such is the pressure of playing the Chinese that they can leave an opponent spent.
Ayaz Memon writes a fortnightly column in Mint, Beyond Boundaries.
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