New Delhi: Once a rising star and now a revered icon, Saina Nehwal will without a doubt shoulder a huge burden of expectations at the Olympics but there could be a couple of surprise success stories apart from her when an unprecedented five-strong Indian badminton contingent takes the court in London.
India will be fielding three women and two men at the mega-event – which is a first in the history of the game and all eyes will be on Saina and doubles player Jwala Gutta as they seek to break the Olympic jinx this time.
But P Kashyap, in men's singles, is the proverbial dark horse who might share the limelight with Saina given his giant-killing credentials.
Four summers ago, Saina was a rising Indian star but even then the Hyderabadi had stamped her authority when she became the first Indian woman shuttler to enter the quarter-final at Beijing Games.
She had lost to Indonesian Maria Kristin Yulianti then after leading the third set 11-3. The defeat haunted her for many nights and it would be an opportunity to exorcise the ghosts of 2008.
Needless to say, Saina is much more experienced now. From being a talent looking to get a foothold in international badminton to a superstar, she has covered the distance in quick time, going from strength to strength.
In the last four years, the Indian has won five Super Series titles – Indonesia (2009, 2010, 2012), Singapore (2010) and Hong Kong (2010) – and reached the finals of Malaysia Super Series, Indonesia Super Series and Super Series Masters Final last year.
She has also won the Swiss Open Grand Prix Gold in 2011 and 2012, besides clinching the Commonwealth Games gold and India Open Grand Prix in 2009 and India Open Grand Prix Gold in 2010.
In the run-up to the Olympics, the world number five Indian has already sent a warning to her Chinese rivals by winning two successive titles – Thailand Grand Prix Gold and Indonesian Super Series Premier last month and vowed to bring home a medal from London.
However, Saina knows past performances would matter little and she will have to hold on to her peak form and fitness – both physically and mentally – to outwit the formidable Chinese once again in the Olympics. "It is important to be in good shape before the Olympics. The Chinese are tough players and they fight for each and every point. It is not easy to beat them but a medal in the Olympics is not impossible," she says.
While Saina has been the face of Indian badminton for the last few years, doubles specialist Jwala Gutta has also stepped up the ladder, becoming the first Indian shuttler to qualify in two Olympic events – mixed doubles and women's doubles.
The 28-year-old Hyderabadi along with the experienced V Diju and youngster Ashwini Ponnappa formed a competitive mixed and women's doubles combination, which produced quite a few top performances in international circuit.
The current World number 13 pair of Jwala and Diju were the runners-up at Indian Open at Hyderabad in 2009. They also reached the World Super Series Masters final in Johor Bahru, Malaysia the same year.
Riding on their performances, the duo had reached the career-best ranking of world number six in August, 2010.
Similarly, Jwala and Ashwini also weaved together a series of good shows to emerge as a formidable women's doubles combo. They became the first Indian pair to win the Commonwealth Games gold medal.
In 2011, the duo achieved another milestone when they won the bronze medal in the World Championship in London at the same venue where the London Games will be held. Eyeing a medal, Jwala has already started focusing on her fitness and stays confident of a good show at London.
"I am working on losing weight, so that I move faster. I just want to give my best shot. I am confident. I played in the World Championships at the same venue. I feel, when I can win bronze medal in World Championships, Olympics is no different," Jwala said.
Kashyap, meanwhile, pipped his good friend Ajay Jayaram in the race for Olympic qualification when he reached the semi-finals of the India Open Super Series in April here. The 25-year-old Commonwealth Games bronze medallist showed spark when he stunned world number three Chen Long and 16th ranked Hans-Kristian Vittinghus of Denmark in Indonesia Super Series last month.
With the likes of Lin Dan and Peter Gade in the men's singles competition, Kashyap knows it would be extremely tough but he remains hopeful of a good showing in Olympics. "I have been doing well this year. I have been improving in every tournament. I beat a couple of world top 10 players [this year]. I am hopeful that I will do well in Olympics," Kashyap said.