The 21-year-old was pipped by Spain’s Carolina Marin in the women’s singles, but claimed a first badminton silver for India in the process, writes Gruffudd Owen
Of the 117-strong delegation sent by the Indian Olympic Association to Rio, badminton star Saina Nehwal was regarded as one of the country’s best hopes of winning a medal, following on from her historic bronze at London four years ago – India’s first podium finish in the sport since its introduction to the Games in 1992.
On Friday, fans who had made the long journey to Brazil – not to mention the millions of viewers back home – could indeed celebrate another unprecedented feat, with a record-high silver medal finish secured in the women’s badminton singles.
And yet it was 21-year-old Hyderabadi PV Sindhu – not Nehwal – who stood proudly on the Rio podium to receive the honour around her neck, after an epic final encounter against Carolina Marin of Spain, in which she bravely succumbed to a narrow 2-1 loss.
Despite most of the attention prior to the competition focusing on Nehwal – the more decorated of the pair, and boasting a higher world ranking of five compared to Sindhu’s 10 – the latter soon emerged as her nation’s sole hope in the women’s draw after her injury-stricken compatriot was eliminated at the group stage.
The determined Sindhu, however, secured top spot in her pool, with a comfortable two-game victory over Laura Sarosi of Hungary followed by another win against Canada’s Michelle Li in three games.
After another thoroughly deserved win in the opening round of the knockout stage – this time dispatching world no. 8 Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei in 42 minutes – a quarter-final tie against the Chinese star and world no. 2 Wang Yihan beckoned.
In a gruelling 55-minute battle, Sindhu managed to prevail by edging out her opponent 22-20, 21-19, before emerging victorious from a last-four clash with Japan’s world no. 6 Nozomi Okuhara to set up the gold medal match against Spain’s Carolina Marin.
That Sindhu battled past three players who sit above her in the world rankings on her way to the final is testament to the shuttler’s ability on the court, as well as her immense mental strength.
But toppling the world no. 1 proved to be a step too far for the Indian. Although Sindhu began brightly by winning the opening game, her opponent’s class shone through at the Riocentro Pavilion 4, as Marin won the final two games to clinch gold.
Far from being disappointed with the loss, however, a magnanimous Sindhu reflected with pride on her performances in Rio.
“I am really happy,” she said after the final. “My ultimate aim and goal was to get a medal at the Olympics. I thought it would be a gold but, never mind, it became a silver.
“I never thought I would make it here, but it is a wonderful week for me overall. I am really happy. In the final, both of us played really well and I congratulated her. Overall, it was a very good match and the crowd was wonderful. I feel like I am on cloud nine right now. I have no words.”