Rioour years after a bronze at London Games made her the toast of the nation, Saina Nehwal will once again carry a billion hopes when she along with the other six shuttlers, including doubles exponent Jwala Gutta, begin their campaign at the Rio Olympics in Rio on Thursday.
Saina had started her Olympic journey as an 18-year-old when she reached the quarterfinals at the Beijing Games.
The loss suffered eight years ago to Indonesia’s Maria Kristin Yulianti spurred her to scoop the bronze at London and she will be hungry to taste gold this time when she starts her campaign in Group G, which includes lesser-known players such as Lohaynny Vicente and Maria Ulitina.
It has been an eventful couple of years for Saina as she shifted base from Hyderabad to Bangalore in early 2014 and trained under the watchful eyes of former chief coach Vimal Kumar.
She won a silver at All England and World Championship, clinched the India Open and coveted China Premier Super Series title and became the World No. 1.
But an ankle injury sustained in the end phase of last year troubled her and almost derailed her Olympic campaign before Saina fought back and regained her fitness and came up with a consistent run of performance at Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia which culminated with the Australian Open triumph in June.
At 26, it will be her best chance to win an Olympic gold and Saina said she is looking to “reach the peak” in that particular week.
“I take each tournament as it comes. My approach to the Games is very positive and I would like to keep it like that and focus on my game. I feel that on the day that I am 100 percent fit, I have the potential to defeat anyone,” said the fifth seed who will take on Vicente in her tournament opener.
“I feel I am fit. It’s important that you reach the peak and play your best during that particular week. That’s what will count ultimately and will be the key. I am working hard on my half smashes to get closer to my goals.”
Saina is likely to meet Thailand’s Porntip Buranaprasetsuk at the pre-quarterfinals and might face reigning champion Li Xuerui in the quarters. Current World champion and European champion Carolina Marin is a likely rival in the semi-finals, barring any hiccups in the earlier matches.
In women’s singles, two-time World Championship bronze medallist PV Sindhu will also look to make her Olympic debut count when she starts her campaign in group M. The 21-year-old didn’t have a good run-up to the Olympics but she does have the reputation of shocking big players. She has defeated top shuttlers like Li Xuerui, Yihan Wang and Carolina Marin.