When Saina Nehwal takes on Shixian Wang in the quarterfinals of the All England Super Series Premier in Birmingham later today, she would know very well that there cannot be a better opportunity for her to stake claim for the coveted title.
In the last few years, the major tournaments have been billed as ‘Saina vs China’ given the rivalry between the world badminton’s powerhouse and the Indian ace. And the second seed would get a chance to ensure that there would be no Chinese player in the women’s singles semifinals for the first time since 1996 if she gets the better of the 2011 All England champion, Shixian.
The favourite tag was attached to Saina on the very first day of the tournament when reigning Olympic champion Li Xuerui and world champion Yihan Wang were shown the door in the opening round of the tournament and the London Olympic bronze medallist would surely fancy her chances having to face the only Chinese against whom she has a positive head to head record.
The duo met four times before this encounter and the second seeded Indian has faced only one reversal against Shixian in their very first meeting back in 2010. It is common knowledge that Shixian is not one of the most strongest (physically) player among the Chinese contingent and Saina has always managed to get an upper hand on her Chinese opponent with a strong retrieving strategy.
The real challenge for Saina would be to handle the pressure of expectations when she goes out on the court. Despite her many triumphs elsewhere, the 22-year-old has always dreamt of emulating her mentor and coach Pullela Gopichand, who won the men’s singles title in 2001.
In fact, the All England has a special place in the heart of the all the badminton lovers in the country ever since the legendary Prakash Padukone bagged the men’s singles crown in 1980.
The importance of the All England title for an Indian fan can be gauged from the fact that, the former Olympic and World champion Taufiq Hidayat has to face questions about his inability to win the All England title despite his other achievements every time he is in India.
And every Indian player has to carry that weight of expectations to the All England even now.
This is precisely why, Saina decided to add an extra week to her preparations by not playing the German Open and should be at her physical best in the tournament.
She did not have a rousing start to her campaign and her preparations were put to test by Sapsiree Taerattanachai of Thailand in the first round. However, she stormed back with a convincing victory over Balaetrix Manuputi of Indonesia in the second round and should be more confident taking on Shixian.
It is true that she has been troubled by a knee injury for the past few months but after two rounds in the competition, the Indian does not look to be in any sort of discomfort.
Saina and chief national coach Gopichand would definitely like everyone to believe that merely winning the quarterfinal against Shixian won’t guarantee anything for the Denmark Super Series Premier champion as there are many big names still left – including twice All England champion Tine Baun and fourth seed Juliane Schenk, whom Saina can meet in the semifinals.
However, the Indian has been dominating the exchanges against both of them for the past two years and it will be Saina’s title to lose once she crosses the quarterfinal hurdle.