Rio de Janeiro: India were left to rue a missed opportunity in tennis with Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna's mixed doubles semifinal loss after Lalita Babar became the first woman in three decades to enter the final of a track event at an Olympic Games, in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday.
A historic Olympic silver medal was well within reach before Sania and Bopanna suffered a sudden mid- match slump and frittered away an advantageous position to lose their last-four clash from a position of strength to Americans Venus Williams and Rajeev Ram.
After dominating the first set, Sania and Bopanna lost 6-2 2-6 3-10 to the Americans and will now fight for the bronze medal.
The Indians were cruising at one stage but once Sania's serve was broken in the fourth game of the second set, the tide turned in the favour of the Americans.
Leander Paes remains the only player to win a tennis medal in India's Olympic history.
"We have to try and recover as quick as possible, mentally and physically. Probably more mentally. We have to go back, try and get some sleep, put some food in our body and recover for tomorrow," Sania said after the defeat.
The duo of Sania and Bopanna stumbled after Lalita revived India's fortunes in the track and field events. Lalita scripted a new chapter in the country's athletics history in the Olympic Games by becoming the first woman in three decades to enter the final of a track event when she shattered the national mark to reach the 3000m steeplechase medal round.
Lalita, hailing from Satara district of Maharashtra, qualified for the women's 3000m steeplechase final after finishing fourth in the qualifying heat 2 with a new national record time of 9 minutes, 19.76 seconds while the holder of that mark, compatriot Sudha Singh, was eliminated after a poor run in heat 3.
The 27-year-old Lalita, who had won the bronze medal in the event in the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, two years ago, emulated 'Payyoli Express' P T Usha by entering the final.
Usha, who runs a running academy now, was the first Indian woman to achieve the distinction when she made the finals of the women's 400m hurdles in 1984 at Los Angeles before missing the bronze by a fraction of a second.
Lalita, in fact, finished with the seventh-best time in the heats by clipping nearly seven seconds off the existing national mark standing in the name of Sudha (9:26.55), clocked in Shanghai in May.
The top three in the three heats gained automatic qualification while Lalita made the grade as one of the six fastest from among the rest. Had she ran in the third heat she would have qualified as the winner of that race.
After qualifying for the final, an elated Lalita said that she was looking to give her best in the final on the Independence day.
"Now all the focus for the final on the Independence Day," said Lalita.
Lalita will be seen in the final on 15 August.
However, compatriot Sudha Singh fell by the wayside and exited. Sudha performed far below her best to finish a distant 9th in heat 3 with a poor time of 9:43.29, which gave her the 30th spot out of 52 in the qualifiers.
The third Indian athlete in fray in today's action, Nirmala Sheoran, looked totally out of depth in the women's 400m preliminaries in which she finished a distant 35th overall after ending up sixth out of seven runners in heat 1 in 53.03 seconds.
Also making early exits were shooter Gurpreet Singh, who failed to qualify for the men's 25m rapid fire pistol final after finishing seventh in the qualifications with 581, and also Mairaj Ahmad Khan, who bowed by finishing ninth after losing in a shoot-off in men's skeet.
The top six qualified for the summit contest with the sixth-placed shooter, Leuris Pupo of Cuba, finishing with 583.
Gurpreet, who was placed 10th at the end of first qualifying phase with 289 points, collected a total of 292 points for a total of 581, including 24x, to miss the finals by a whisker. His one bad round of 90 yesterday cost him a place in the final of the event.
After Mairaj was tied with tied with four other shooters, the last two semifinals sports were shoot-off where the Indian, who was 10th overnight, dropped to ninth with a +3.
In women's hockey, India were thrashed by Argentina 0-5, their fourth successive loss in five matches in Pool B. They are out of the fray.
In rowing, Dattu Baban Bhokanal finished 15th overall in men's single sculls after coming in first in his final ranking race clocking 6:54.96.
In badminton, already out of medal contention, women's doubles pair of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa suffered their third successive loss in their final Group A match against Thailand's Supajirakul Puttita and Taerattanachai Sapsiree.
Playing their second Olympics after London Games, Jwala and Ashwini lost 17-21 15-21 to finish their outing with a hat-trick of defeats.
Golfers SSP Chawrasia and Anirban Lahiri were placed tied 22nd and joint 57th after posting two-under 69 and four-over 75 respectively in the third round.