Saina raises Olympic medal hopes, lifts Indonesia Open trophy

Saina Nehwal
Raising hopes for a medal in next month's London Olympics, Indian badminton ace Saina Nehwal today won the Indonesia Open Super Series title after beating world number three Xuerui Li of China in a hard-fought summit clash here.

The fifth-seeded Indian, who had won the Thailand Open last week, defeated Li 13-21 22-20 21-19 in an hour and four minutes to lift her third title of the year -- the first being the Swiss Open.

Today's title triumph -- her third of the same tournament -- also served a warning to the formidable Chinese shuttlers ahead of the Olympics as Saina is expected to face stiff challenge from them in her quest for a medal in the London Games.

Saina, 22, is expected to take a break to recharge herself for the gruelling contest ahead of the July 27 to August 12 mega sporting event.

"It was a really, really tough and I love the crowd here. It's really nice here. Whenever I enter the court, I feel like a champion here," said Saina, who had earlier clinched this title in 2009 and 2010 and was a runner-up last year.

It was a battle of attrition for Saina against an opponent to whom she had lost four times and won just once -- that too way back in 2010 -- previously.

"It is a very good victory for Saina. It was a tricky situation because we had a very tough schedule. There were many tight matches and it has been a very tough week and what was good is that she kept pushing," national coach Pullela Gopichand told said from Jakarta.

"The mental tenacity that she showed all through the last two weeks is commendable because even when she lost a game, she was mentally stubborn," he said.

The start was ominous for Saina as she conceded four successive points. The two players seemed engaged in a battle of smashes and were at par with each other when it came to baseline rallies.

But it was the netplay in which Li enjoyed the upperhand with her delicate winners that Saina found hard to counter in the opening game.

Li took an 11-6 lead with her seventh smash winner of the game leaving Saina with a lot of catching up to do. The Chinese girl's strategy was to engage Saina in aggressive baseline rallies before forcing her to commit errors from close range.

The exhaustion of a couple of hard-fought matches in the previous rounds also showed on Saina's on-court movement and her returns seemed sluggish.

The Indian could not breach the lead that Li had taken at the very start and although the Chinese floundered a bit in the middle of the game, Saina failed to capitalise and lost the opener in 15 minutes. In all, Li sent down 13 smash winners against Saina's eight.

Li's superior netplay clinched seven points for her while Saina settled for just four in the opening game.

In the second game, Saina staged a recovery and finally got into the lead at 7-4 after a couple of miscued shots by the fourth seeded Li at the far court.

Fortunes fluctuated sharply in the exhausting second game. An erratic Saina, who led 11-7 and 18-14 at one stage, lost her way for a while before saving a championship point at 18-20 and going on to win the game and stay afloat in the match.

Saina played to her strength, smashing 16 winners as Li's baseline game became erratic even though she kept breathing down the Indian's neck all through.

Statistically, there was hardly anything to separate the two players, but a few errors in judgement by Li proved decisive.

Pumped up after equalising, Saina started off dominantly in the decisive third game and took a 5-2 lead. But after that it became a see-saw battle with Saina trailing 10-11 at break.

But the Indian managed to nose ahead, grabbing a 19-16 lead.

However, Saina let slip a championship point before clinching the game, match and the trophy when Li smashed a backhand stroke into the net.

"She played on Sunday last week and reached here on Monday night. From Wednesday onwards, to put up the same intensity and physical effort match by match each day and go through so many up and downs with all the adrenaline, it was good to see her managing all that well," Gopichand said.

The national coach said there are a few aspects of Saina's game that need to be worked upon as she continues her build-up to the Olympics next month.

"We need to go and then assess her performance and work on the weaknesses. It would be very important for her to maintain her fitness and ensure that she peaks at the right time before the Olympics. These two wins will give her confidence a big boost," he said.

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