Marvellous escape: Saina Nehwal comes back from dead to reach India Open Super Series semis

Defending champion Saina Nehwal took another step towards retaining her title when she played out of her skin to eke out a thrilling win over Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun in the quarterfinals of the India Open Super Series on Friday.

Olympic bronze medallist Saina defeated Sung 19-21 21-14 21-19 in an energy-sapping women’s last-eight match at the Siri Fort stadium. There was hardly any winner in the grueling three-game match as each rode on the other’s unforced errors.

Saina, who has beaten Sung five times in the past used her drops early on to catch the Korean at the forecourt. However, unforced errors and a few deceptive returns helped Sung to lead 8-4. The Indian showed her resilience to claw back at 10 before a shot from Sung left her stranded.

After the break, Saina turned the tables to lead 14-12 but soon Sung once again drew parity. The Indian once again nosed ahead to 17-15 but once again Sung fought back and grabbed a 18-17 lead after Saina made a wrong line call and then hit the net. Another return going to net and then failure to retrieve a shot at the right side gave Sung a 20-17 lead. Saina saved two but left the next thinking it will drop inside the line.

In the second game, Saina lead 3-1 when Sung took a break to attend to her right ankle. When the match resumed, Saina continued her good run to lead 6-2. Sung slowly leveled par at 6-6 when a low return from Saina went to the net. The Indian again surged ahead and entered the break at 11-7.

After the interval, Saina extended the lead to 13-8 and then zoomed to 19-10 with the Korean crumbling. Sung grabbed three points before another long shot gave Saina a 20-13 lead. The Korean saved one but Saina roared into contest when Sung failed at the net.

In the decider, Sung lead 5-2 early on but she failed to rein her unforced errors as Saina soon turned it around at 8-6. The Korean looked visibly tired as she didn’t even try to retrieve some of the shots as Saina reached the break with an 11-7 advantage.

A change of side seemed to change the fortune of Sung, who reeled off six straight points to grab the lead 13-11. A net error broke the rhythm but Saina again hit wide as Sung lead 14-12. Two wide shots from Sung brought Saina to an even-knell at 17-17 before he grabbed the lead when the Korean erred at the net. A couple of long shots from Sung took Saina to a 20-19 lead. Sung saved one but Saina grabbed the net after another fierce rally and threw up her arms in ecstasy.

After the match, Saina said she didn’t expect it to be such a tough match as she always had easy outings against Sung. “She has played really well. I didn’t expect her to do so many rallies actually. She was picking up my shots. The last moments were actually very tense. It has always been easy against her. It was never such a long match. Once I think in Denmark I guess we played close. This time it was totally different. But I guess there is lot of pressure also now on me. I am happy with the way I played,” she told reporters.

“She is in great shape. She won the New Zealand Open also. It was a tough match. I was not getting points on smashes, so it was either on rallies or drops, so I was sticking with it. She has got some very good drop and she is tall as well. I said earlier I need some match practice to get to my best. I will need some more time but I am happy that I am being able to pull out my matches,” Saina said.

Asked about the importance of defending ranking points in the run-up to the Olympics, Saina said, “The semis is a good enough result so no tensions now. The main focus will be to win tournaments and not to think about the ranking points.”