Going by track record, it should have been a no-contest. Saina, world no. 3, had an unbeaten 4-0 record against her opponent, Malaysia’s Mew Choo Wong. But Wong, world No. 17, had run Saina close in the team final a few days ago. Could she do an encore?
She almost went one better in a 74-minute thriller that Saina would later describe as the toughest match of her career. Eventually, Saina won a nerve-wracking battle 19-21, 23-21, 21-13 after facing a match point at 20-21 in the second game. Never before has the country been united by a badminton match. Nor has India come so close to finding such a loved sporting icon after Sachin Tendulkar.
Saina’s triumph ensured the Games would end on a high note for India. It was perhaps only fitting, given the number of heroes who thrilled Indian fans in the past few days.
Earlier on Thursday, Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa had won the women’s doubles, again a first for India. The record haul was, of course, set up by the shooters, with Gagan Narang bagging four golds. The wrestlers, led by world champ Sushil Kumar, too obliged adoring fans. But golds also came from some delightfully unexpected quarters.
There was teenager Deepika Kumari, who came up with a golden double in the women’s recurve archery event. India hadn’t won a gold in either track or field since 1958. It got one in each, with Krishna Poonia leading a clean sweep of the women’s discus throw, and the women’s 4x400m relay squad beating Nigeria and England.
Indeed, the relay win, greeted by full-throated acclaim from a packed J N Stadium, moved former athletics great and head of the London 2012 Olympics OC Sebestian Coe to declare, ‘‘It may just have changed the direction of track and field not only in India, but in Asia.”
So does Delhi 2010 herald the arrival of India as a sporting nation? It may be premature to say so. The Asian Games that follow shortly will give us a more accurate assessment of where we stand. But at least while the Delhi Games lasted, Indians tuned in to many sports other than cricket. The Saina-Wong epic was followed as enthusiastically on TV as any T20 thriller. In that and the youngsters who will be inspired to come up with similar feats lies hope for the future.