The 31-year-old shuttler was the pioneer in increasing the popularity of women’s badminton in India.
If there is one player who is instrumental in bringing the spotlight to women’s game in badminton, it is Saina Nehwal. The girl from Haryana was the pioneer in breaking numerous records in badminton. With 24 international titles, Saina’s biggest feat was the 2012 Bronze she won in London Olympics, making her the first-ever badminton player from India to clinch an Olympic medal. She had several other firsts as the entire country took notice of the sport thanks to her monumental achievements.
Saina came to prominence after becoming the first Indian to win the World Junior Badminton Championships in 2008. In the same year, she announced her international arrival, reaching the quarterfinals of the 2008 Beijing Olympics – the first Indian woman to qualify for the Last-8 of the Summer Games. It was at this point, badminton started to gain popularity in India and the country got its maiden female superstar.
Nehwal’s major success came when she was part of Pullela Gopichand’s academy. Her Olympic medal was also in this period. But, she left his academy to join Prakash Padukone’s facility. In this period, she reached the All England final and became the first-ever Indian to contest in the World badminton championship final. Both of which she lost to Carolina Marin.
But her India Open victory in 2015 saw her reach the World No. 1 ranking. Saina became the first female player from India to achieve this feat. After a disappointing Rio Olympics, she was back with Gopichand in 2017. A year later, Saina also became the first Indian to bag two singles Gold in Commonwealth Games – 2010 and 2018.
The calendar year 2012 belonged to Saina. After defending her Swiss Open title, she lifted the Thailand Open before clinching a third successive Indonesia Open. At the peak of her career, Nehwal’s strokeplay was getting better by day. She then started to become a master of long rallies and had developed a solid defence.
Saina was at the best possible shape going into the London Olympics. Seeded 4th in the draw, she eased past Sabrina Jaquet and Belgian Lianne Tan in the group stage. With closely fought victories over Yao Jie and Tine Baun, Saina bettered her Beijing record, progressing through to the semifinals.
Top seed Wang Yihan, however, ended her dream run with straight set victory. Medal hope was still there as she had a bronze medal match to play. An injury forced Wang Xin to retire midway through the game as Nehwal became India’s first badminton player to bag an Olympic medal.
This glorious moment made the world take notice of India’s arrival into global stage. With a plethora of accolades following her Olympic success, Saina was the toast of the nation. She was a role model to many as several young girls took up the sport. Coach Pullela Gopichand also became a household name. Among all her achievements, Saina will forever be cherished for getting the limelight on badminton. Along with her personal success, badminton’s popularity grew multifold in the country, making her the ultimate poster girl of the sport.