Saina & Co rally to script Games history
Top seed Saina Nehwal and the doubles pair of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa scripted history by becoming the first Indian women shuttlers to win gold medals in the Commonwealth Games at the Siri Fort Complex in New Delhi on Thursday.
World number three Saina battled past Malaysian Mew Choo Wong 19-21, 23-21, 21-13 in a nerve-wrecking 70-minute battle in the women's singles final to not only realise her dream of winning the gold but also help India pip England in the final medals tally to take India to 38 yellow metals in the Delhi Games.
Earlier, second seed Jwala and Ashwini eked out a pulsating 21-16, 21-19 victory over Singapore's Sari Shanti Mulia and Yao Lei to earn India its first gold in the women's doubles event in the Commonwealth Games.
After Jwala-Ashwini scripted their piece of history, it was Saina's turn to achieve a goal she had been dreaming about for long.
The 20-year-old Hyderabadi, however, did not find it easy as she had to sweat it out for 70 minutes to get the better of her Malaysian rival.
In the first game, Saina found it difficult to judge the shuttle and lost few points at the forecourt and nets to see the game slip out of her hands after she trailed 8-11 at the break.
But the Indian came back strongly in the second. Saina started playing more cross shots and kept pushing the shuttle at the back in the long rallies to come back from 0-2 to lead 14-10.
But Wong narrowed the gap and wrested the lead at 21-20 before the Indian closed the game with three more points to roar back into the contest.
Image: Saina Nehwal with her gold medal
'It was the toughest match of my career'
In the decider, Saina employed a similar strategy and kept her rival away from the net and used her deceptive drops and tosses to lead 11-7.
She consolidated on her lead as Wong's game crumbled. The Malaysian kept hitting the shuttle out and found the net in the final point as Saina burst into tears and ran into her mentor Pullela Gopichand's arm.
"It was the toughest match of my career. It was a big test for me because I have never won from match point down. But I am happy I could win it for my country in front of my home crowd. I am proud to have taken India to the second position in the medals tally with my gold medal," said Saina, who was lagging 20-21 in the second game before closing it 23-21.
Saina said this was also the toughest that she has played against Wong.
"This fight was most difficult and challenging. She was retrieving everything and was very quick on her feet. I hurried in the first game but in the second I played a lot of drops.
"I was under a lot of pressure when I was match point down. I tried to give my best. The win in the second game completely turned the match. In the third I had a lead and I was confident," Saina said.
"I want to dedicate this medal to my country men, my coaches and my family," she added.
However, it was the duo of Jwala and Ashwini who set the ball rolling for a wonderful finale for the Indians.
Up against the top seed pair of Sari Shanti Mulia and Yao Lei, the Indian duo played a superb game of attack and defence to outclass the Singaporeans.
In a battle of smashes, it was the Indian pair who had the last laugh as they combined powerful smashes with deft net play to notch up their biggest win together.
In the first game, the Indian duo was trailing 0-3 but soon drew level at 5-5, before moving ahead with a smash from Jwala.
Their smashes were too hot to handle for the Singaporeans as they lost plenty of points to eventually see the first game slip out of their grasp.
Image: Saina Nehwal
'Doubles never gets its due'
In the second game, Jwala and Ashwini were trailing 9-11 at the break and a few misses at the net meant India trailed 12-15 but the duo used drops and smashes to wrest the lead after a controversial decision and soon wrapped up the match in their favour.
"It's unbelievable. I think it was long pending for me. I am quite emotional. The feeling is yet to sink in. Ashwini played exceptionally well and we hope to continue the good work," Jwala said.
"I want to dedicate the medal to my family who stood by me, my coaches, especially SM Arif, Atik Jauhari and all the team members, Gopi (Pulella Gopichand). I owe this medal to all who helped me," she said.
"It was not a comfortable match. Both the parties had to fight for the points. We were just focusing on points and did not bother about winning or losing," Jwala added.
Jwala hoped this win will give a fillip to the doubles game in the country and people will take the event more seriously.
"Doubles is an interesting game but somehow it never gets its due. I hope after this win we will understand the importance of doubles. It really hurts when we read news like 'doubles failed miserably'. I don't understand such statements. I hope from now on they will focus on the players' performance," she said.
Among others, Malaysia won three gold medals, including men's singles, mixed and men's doubles category.
The mixed pair of Koo Kien Keat and Chin Ee Hui combined well and survived some crucial moments to see off Nathan Robertson and Jenny Wallwork of England 22-20 21-12 to give his country its first gold of the day in badminton.
While Lee Chong Wei defended his title, spanking England's Rajiv Ouseph 21-10 21-8 in a half an-hour encounter.
World number one pair of Koo Kien Keat and Tan Boon Heong then outsmarted English pair of Robertson and Clark Anthony 21-19 21-14 in 37 minutes.
Image: Ashwini Ponappa (left) and Jwala Gutta with their gold medals