Saina Nehwal went down to a Ukrainian from Dnipropetrovsk who does not have an equipment sponsor and whose greatest achievement before this was a 2nd place in team European Championships of u-17. A serious injury to the right knee – she had a heavy strapping on and struggled in movement – had severely impaired the Indian World No 5’s attempt to advance in the Olympics and Saina Nehwal, a bronze medallist will return home in the middle of a gloomy Games that are soon turning disastrous for the Indian contingent. It’s that kind of Olympics – a Sunday morning rude awakening from Marjia Ulitina who felled Nehwal 21-18, 21-19.
“There was a pain in my knee, so I wasn’t able to play well. It was fat pad inflammation in the right knee. I’ve got a heavy strapping on my knee, and my movement was not good I tried, but I wasn’t able to do it,” she said soon after.
The injury was sustained in training 10 days before coming to Rio, and while Nehwal’s staff of support attempted to patch her back into playing shape, the recovery wasn’t fast enough, and it got aggravated in Rio. “It happened just before the Olympic Games. I tried my best, but movements were not smooth. My movement was painful from the start of the Olympics. She played well no doubt, but I couldn’t move at all,” she told the press soon after the match.
Even when seen in isolation – and quite apart from the general despondency of the Indian contingent in Rio – this is a massive setback for Saina Nehwal, and it is reliably learnt that the knee-bust is pretty serious.
For the celebrated Indian – the country’s first Olympic medallist who hit the high notes of World No 1 last year and had gone into Rio with a title at the Australian Open – this will be an exit reminiscent of the second pool game at Guangzhou’s Asian Games – where her challenge failed to take off entirely.
However, this was tragic because 2016 was the Olympics with womens’ singles at its delectable best with as many as eight contenders spread across the globe for the gold medal.
On Sunday morning, Saina Nehwal was a sitting duck for the modest Ukrainian, ranked 61 in the world. The first signs that Rio wasn’t going to be particularly pleasant for Nehwal had come in her opening match – that pitted her against Lohaunny Vicente, a spunky if limited Brazilian. The local rookie would rattle Nehwal and the crowds would shout the roof down as she needed to grit out a win with the scores snapping too close for her comfort.
She was sluggish in her first match as well, but known to be a slow starter, the match could have been dismissed as a typical Saina-lung opener. But what unfolded in the Ukraine match was a downhill curve where Nehwal first struggled to find her rhythm in smashes, barely going for the second kill shot and then her retrieves looked so tame that there was no likelihood of a follow-up winner. The errors piled up as she went down and when the end came, it was a tough gulp more than a glaring shocker.
One of the biggest names from the Indian contingent had been blown away from Rio, and the court drift wasn’t the problem.
And then there was the dodgy knee – again a cruel reminder.
London’s Wembley had seen Saina Nehwal go on top of the podium, standing proudly alongwith two Chinese when she won bronze. It was after Chinese Xin Wang had folded up with a busted knee – she was last seen clutching a posterior ligament of the left mid-leg – after leading 21-18, 1-0 when India had its first medal in badminton.
For four years now, and despite medalling at the World Championships and reaching No 1 – Saina Nehwal has battled snide remarks on the win being a “fluke” – a rather unfair assessment because a bad knee can equate to a bad loss – as was evident today, and staying fit and not breaking down is modern sport’s unglamorous hidden talent. The wheel turned as it cost Saina Nehwal a second shy at knockouts for an Olympic medal.
“It’s definitely a heartbreaking loss. I also feel very bad about this,” she would simply say – though it remains to be seen if she has another Olympic Games in her.
Sindhu, Srikanth advance
Srikanth, the lone Indian in men’s singles, kept himself in the hunt by reaching the knock-out pre-quarterfinals from Group H by defeating Sweden’s Henri Hurskainen 21-6 21-18 in his second match to make the grade.
Lanky Sindhu later brought some cheer to the dejected Indian camp by making it to the pre quarters of women’s singles from her Group M after getting the better of Michelle Li of Canada 19-21 21-15 21-17.
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