Fifth-seeded Saina Nehwal, bearer of a billion Indian hopes and widely expected to better her bronze-winning performance at the 2012 London Olympics in badminton, was overwhelmed by the speed and sustained aggression of unheralded Ukrainian Marija Ulitina, losing in straight games at 18-21, 19-21.
Saina's shock defeat in her second group match at the Riocentro Pavilhao resulted in a premature exit for the Indian shuttler, and left her compatriots PV Sindhu and Kidambi Srikanth, both seeded ninth in the women's and men's draws, facing the task of carrying the Indian flag forward.
Srikanth was in full cry in the opening game of his second group match against Henri Hurskainen, but found the spirited Swede coming back at him hammer and tongs in the second stanza. The 23-year-old Indian managed to edge ahead in the closing reaches of the second game, to eke out a 21-6, 21-18 triumph, and progress to the pre-quarter-finals.
Indian supporters had their hearts in their mouths when Sindhu was beaten in the opening game of their final group encounter by the wily Canadian, Michelle Li. But the lanky 20-year-old increased the pressure on her China-born rival in the second game, and was clearly the fitter player in the decider, eventually securing a none too convincing 19-21, 21-15, 21-17 win, nearly blowing a handy 18-11 lead in the decider.
There was finally some cheer for India in the men's doubles, albeit in a "dead" match, when Manu Attri and Sumeet Reddy lowered the colours of the crack Japanese combination of Hiroyuki Endo and Kenichi Hayakawa.
Attri-Reddy had lost their two opening matches and had no chance of progressing to the quarter-finals, while Endo-Hayakawa had already secured theirs with two wins in two matches. Critics felt the latter duo, with nothing much to gain, simply went through the motions, if only to ensure against aggravating Hayakawa's knee injury.
Portents of Saina's defeat had actually been present in her opening match as well, two days earlier, against Brazilian Lohaynny Vicente. The Indian ace had appeared leaden-footed and ill at ease, and struggled to beat Vicente in a close encounter, eventually prevailing 21-17, 21-17. The manner in which Vicente deceived Saina, especially with her backhand crosscourt drop, indicated all wasn't well.
On Sunday, Ulitina, ranked 61st in the world, used that same stroke repeatedly, leaving Saina stuck in mid-court. More telling was the Ukrainian's constant onslaught, as she rained a barrage of leaped and well-angled smashes on the Indian, often following up swiftly to the net to finish off the blocked returns. She even used Saina's own pet stroke, the body smash, giving her rival a taste of her own medicine.
As the match progressed, Saina, who was said to have an inflammation on her knee, appeared to run out of ideas. It was as if she never expected Ulitina would mount anything like the challenge she did. Instead of countering aggression with aggression, she went on the defensive, trying to pin the Ukrainian to the back court with a series of tosses, and letting her own fitness weigh in the balance.
An unfazed Ulitina not only matched Saina in endurance, but also used the smash liberally, to earn vital points and further dent Saina's confidence. The Indian broke away to an initial 6-1 lead, but that was the sum total of her dominance in the encounter.
Ulitina levelled the scores at 8-8, and never allowed her rival to break away into any sort of lead. The two fought on level terms, point for point, the Ukrainian hitting relentlessly, and the Indian trying her best just to weather the storm. At 17-17, Ulitina floored the gas pedal, and claimed the opening stanza for the loss of just one more point.
Ulitina's doughtiness was on display in the second game as well, when she again flung everything at Saina. The latter now tried to switch tactics and play more aggressively. The Ukrainian even returned a couple of Saina's smashes from a sitting-down position on the court, much to the delight of the crowd. The two fought toe-to-toe until Saina went into the breather with a wafer-thin 11-10 lead.
After the interval, it was more level pegging, with the lead never exceeding a single point, until the Ukrainian finally edged ahead 19-18. In a rare display of nerves, Ulitina served wrong, but followed up with a brilliant crosscourt smash, to move to match-point. And she made no mistake on the final point either, to notch up the biggest win of her fledgling career.
Virtually following in Ulitina's giant-killing footsteps was Michelle Li, who was clearly superior to Sindhu in stroke production, but lacked the finer edge and fitness in what turned out to be a long-drawn, edge of the seat encounter. Sindhu's initial aggressive play held no terrors for the Canadian, who was clean and compact with her defence, and deadly in counter-attack.
Clearly, aggression alone was unlikely to work against Li. Coaches Pullela Gopi Chand and Tan Kim Her had already advised Sindhu to increase the length of her rallies in the second game. Constant pressure applied to Li's deep forehand baseline corner produced some relatively weak returns for Sindhu to kill with cross court smashes, and wrest back the initiative.
The Indian was always ahead in the second game, going into the break at 11-8, and improving the advantage to 17-12, before taking the second game handily. She also overturned a worrying 4-1 lead in the decider into a 9-5 advantage for herself, and led 11-7 at the change of ends.
At 18-11 after some stirring long rallies, it appeared that the match was over, bar the shouting. But Li had other ideas, putting on a spirited spurt to narrow the deficit to 16-19, causing Sindhu to pace the court disconsolately, like a cat on a hot tin roof. Fortunately, at 17-20, with Li serving to stay in the match, Sindhu charged the service, and got away with the "fault-receiver" infringement, to win the tight encounter.
On this, the ninth day of the Games, India's 108-member contingent had yet to win a medal of any hue, in the 19 disciplines in which it was competing. Saina's dismal outing against Ulitina marked the lowest point that an Indian athlete has reached in this Olympics, perhaps rivalling only tennis stars Leander Paes and Rohan Bopanna's ignominious exit in their opening encounter, and Bopanna-Sania Mirza's defeat in the mixed doubles bronze medal playoff match.