Thursday, October 14, 2010

Saina, Jwala & Ashwini take gold tally to 38

There’s life beyond self-doubt. Even for a country that has suffered chronic bouts of that dark feeling often when the words Commonwealth Games were uttered these last few months. Fitting then that it was three  extremely self-assured sportswomen from India — seasoned shuttle-sharks Saina Nehwal and Jwala Gutta, and a third, Ashwini Ponappa, emerging as Jwala’s finest understudy over the last 10 days — who guided the country into that realm of supreme confidence and pride, that only a sporting medal could guarantee.
No dazzling pyrotechnics at the closing ceremony or Incredible India assertions prior to that held the same power of the two gold medals, coveted on the final day. Any hue lesser of the medal, any effort less on part of the badminton players, any shuttle less retrieved would have left the nagging feeling of some unfinished business to these Games.

As it turned out, India’s athletes  settled for nothing less than gold in the last competitive events of the Games, playing out of their skins, and dwelling on that nucleus of their character that marks out the two Hyderabadis, Saina and Jwala, and the baby of the team, Bangalorean Ashwini, as the fiery, fearless young Indians.       

The final day of the Commonwealth Games had thrown an open challenge to the hosts—that of overhauling England who had 37 gold medals for a second-place finish on the medal’s tally. India were one short with 36 at the start of the day, and as anguishing images of the hockey loss were beamed in, the Siri Fort stadium and the two precious gold medals it held suddenly became citadels that needed to be defended with grit and honour.

The trio aren’t mechanised robots though, automated to excellence at a switch of button. So a fair amount of sweat, some jangled nerve-endings and plenty of adrenaline—whipped up undoubtedly by the crowd—went into securing medals from a discipline that had suddenly acquired urgency and immediacy owing to the shoot-off with England.

There was no dearth of demons to conquer either. Nehwal admits she still gets nightmares of the Olympic quarterfinal loss that denied her a medal. She’d left this venue six months ago after going out in tears from an Asian championships semifinal.

Jwala hasn’t had the smoothest of run-ups to the Games with endless speculation about her personal life, besides a greenhorn partner by her side, who needed support more than she’d offer. And Ashwini simply didn’t want to be the one spoiling the party because of jumpy nerves.    

While Ashwini went retrieving the flying shuttles at the stroke of noon, whacking them back at express speed and with strength that doesn’t show in her petite frame, Jwala put her wrist wizardry to its ultimate elasticity-test returning serves and smashes at the net, as they downed some dogged resistance from the Singaporeans. Securing a historic women’s doubles gold medal for India in badminton, they had taken India’s cause forward as badminton’s distant venue—hitherto quiet—suddenly became part of an Indian march to out-medal England.

When Saina came for her final match, India needed the one gold, and the desperation crept into her game as she went for some anxious winners. Forty-five minutes on, she was staring shockingly at a scoreline that saw her match-point down at 21-20 in the second set in what she later labelled the toughest final of her career.

Self-doubt struck all the tiers of the capacity stadium en masse, but not the core of the heart where it was kept at bay by her coach’s relentless encouragement and her own deep inner-strength, celebrated in fancy words by writers, but never tested in front of a home-crowd in the Capital.

Pulling winners out of her armoury of drop-shots and running for every net-flick even as her opponent increased the doggedness-stakes, Saina launched counters, plotting every point in mini-seconds and on her rushing feet pushing the match into a decider with a roar that she usually reserves for the end of the match. Keeping the momentum going, Saina attacked the Malaysian on her far back-hand, and then clung onto a lead like a rare icecream cone, when coach Gopichand allows her.

When Mew Choo Wong hit the shuttle long giving Saina a 19-21, 23-21, 21-13 win, it was an entire nation celebrating the return from a brink, celebrating how self-doubt could be conquered in sport. Apt that CWG’s poster girl should serve up the final dessert.

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