Mumbai: Saina Nehwal has become a strong medal prospect at the upcoming London Olympics after her dominating performance over the formidable Chinese player at the Indonesian Open, asserts nine-time national badminton champion and two-time Olympian Aparna Popat.
"There was a lot of pressure on her as everybody was talking about matching up to the Chinese and so on and so forth. Beating two Chinese in the Indonesian Open which is such a strong field and winning the title will give her a lot of confidence for the Games," Aparna said.
The 34-year-old former shuttler, now an Administrative Manager in the Indian Oil Corporation, had reached the pre-quarter-finals of women's singles in the 2004 Athens Olympics that was bettered by Saina four years later at the Beijing Games when she made the last eight.
Asked whether she expects Saina to climb the medal rostrum in the July 27-August 12 London Games, Aparna said "certainly".
"Certainly. Can't say which medal, but I am sure she will come back with a medal," said the Mumbai-based ex-player whose continuous reign at the top in the nationals was halted by the Hyderabad-based Saina in 2006.
About the Chinese threat, Aparna said that while Saina had been beating them regularly in 2010, in 2011 injuries affected her game.
"In 2010 she was beating the Chinese. In 2011, unfortunately she was losing, but losing very close matches. And we all know she was plagued by injuries.
"When you play a Chinese, you have to be at the top of your game. You have to be very close to 100 per cent fitness-wise, otherwise it's going to be very difficult. When she is fully fit and has had her preparation time, the results have gone in her favour," said Aparna.
Saina beat Chinese world No. 4 Shixian Wang and her compatriot and world number three Xuerui Li en route to her third Indonesia Open title in the last four years at Jakarta. Aparna agreed with Saina's own view that the Hyderabadi has improved her defence.
"She has said she has improved her defence as she has been sticking in her points. Even when strokes are not going in her favour she has managed to keep the shuttle in play. You can say she has worked on her defence," Aparna observed.
Aparna felt the five-week preparation, Saina is planning now for London, is going to be a crucial factor.
"This preparation will be the key. This is the last bit of fine tuning that she can do. Having this preparation is very important. She should remain mentally fresh and injury free," said Aparna, who bagged a singles silver medal in the 1998 Commonwealth Games at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
"We will have a special programme for the Olympics. It'll be a tough 4-5 weeks for me. So, it is important to be in good shape and injury free before the Olympics because the courts there will be slow," Saina told reporters in Hyderabad yesterday on her return home.
Endorsing Saina's views about the expected playing conditions in London, Aparna said during the Olympics there would be longer rallies for points as the shuttle speed would be slower than was the case in Indonesia.
"Slow courts basically means that the shuttles would move a little slower. So the type of game you are playing has to be altered a bit. In Indonesia the courts were faster, so the shuttles were faster. And you play more attacking and more risky game. The rallies will be shorter as you can play more strokes.
"In London probably the rallies are going to be longer and you may not be seeing as many quick points. Matches will be longer as rallies will be longer," explained Aparna, a two-time team bronze medalist in the CWG and a pre-quarterfinalist in singles in the 2003 World Championships.
Aparna, who competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics before the Athens Games, said Saina's experience of playing in Beijing four years ago would stand her in good stead as the pressure was a lot different in the quandrennial sports spectacle.
"There is more pressure in representing the country in the Olympics for two reasons; one is it comes after every four years. Secondly, a lot more people would be watching/following the Games all over the world. There's going to be much more pressure," according to Aparna.
"That (Beijing) experience will help her a lot. I played two Olympics. There's a vast difference between the first and the next. In these Olympics she will know what to expect. She has played these two tournaments (Thailand and Indonesian Opens) and she knows what the form of these players are like. Her preparations are going to be much much better."
From her own experience, Aparna said there was no hard and fast rule on how to mentally prepare for the Games.
"For a sports person it depends what works for you. Some persons want to remain without pressure. Some people would like to have a bit of pressure so that they can perform at their best. It depends on what gets her motivated and keeps her motivated," she declared.
Coach P Gopichand would play a very important role in Saina's run in the Games, said Aparna.
"It's (Gopi's presence) is very important. Gopichand is the main force behind Saina, no doubt."
While saying Saina remained the best bet for a medal, Aparna also saw potential medal winners elsewhere ... like the world championship bronze medal-winning women's pair of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa and men's main hope Parupally Kashyap.
"I am quite optimistic about India's medal chances: One medal for sure, more also possible. Saina is the best bet but it can be any one.
"A medal is very possible in women's doubles. They (Jwala and Ashwini) are obviously bronze medalists in the World championships. Can't rule them out of medal contention.
"The doubles field is only 16 players. You have a couple of good matches you are in with a medal chance. The matches will be very close. 2 points here and there will make a lot of difference even in the mixed doubles," Aparna pointed out.
"Kashyap has really done well in the India Open and the Indonesian Open now. He is going to be seen in Singapore and let's see what he does there. In this scoring format and considering the pressure of the Olympics, anything can happen because the Olympics has thrown up some surprises in the past. There definitely will be some surprises," she added.