Saina Nehwal's inspired run at the World Badminton Championships came to an end after she lost 21-12, 17-21, 10-21 to Rio Olympics bronze medallist Nozomi Okuhara in the semi-final in Glasgow on Saturday. The energy sapping match lasted an hour and 13 minutes.
Saina was the dominant player in the opening game, attacking Okuhara's backhand by pushing her deep and then drawing her forward by playing drop shots that she could not reach. The Japanese player got off to a great start in the second game and continued to lead throughout that game before winning it in 27 minutes.
Saina seemed to run out of gas in the third game as the aftereffects of her marathon quarterfinal against Kirsty Gimlour seemed to finally catch up with her. Okuhara became the first Japanese player to reach the women's singles final at the Worlds. This was only Okuhara's second win in eight matches against Saina.
Saina dictates the early pace
Having played her quarterfinal match less than 18 hours ago, Saina knew that her best chance lay in racing away to an early lead and not engaging in long rallies with her opponent who feeds off such points. It helped that Saina's accuracy was pinpoint in the first game as Okuhara often left shuttles that landed well within the sideline or baseline.
Saina was fully pumped up in the opening game as loud cries of 'come on' followed every point that she won. Okuhara struggled with the quick pace set by Saina, who left her on the floor on more than one occasion with a deft backhand drop being a particular highlight.
Okuhara catches Saina off guard
After losing the first game in just 22 minutes, Okuhara played her best badminton at the beginning of the second game as she scampered hard to retrieve everything that Saina threw at her. With Saina having to hit into the drift in the second game, her accuracy suffered and Okuhara took full advantage, racing away to a 4-0 lead.
Renowned for her fighting qualities, Saina levelled scores at 10-10 but failed to retrieve a drop that Okuhara played to her backhand. The shuttle would probably have landed out had Saina chosen not to play.
Saina's accuracy abandons her at a crucial moment
Saina continued to stay within touching distance of Okuhara but missed a crucial down-the-line smash after opening up acres of space on Okuhara's forehand and the Japanese player then converted her first game point opportunity to win the closest game of the match.
It was brave play from Saina though as she stayed true to her attacking game plan and went for the line instead of choosing the safer option.
Saina runs out of gas in the decider
Ever since suffering a career-threatening knee injury, Saina's struggled to win back-to-back three-game matches. She lost after winning a tough three-game match in Thailand and Australia too.
Unlike in the past where Saina has often tried to outhit Okuhara from the back court, she made a conscious effort to cut down on long rallies in the opening two games. Okuhara took the bait in the initial stages, even trying an out of character smash return at one stage that landed well wide, but grew wise to Saina's tactics in the second game and dictated the play by hitting deep to Saina's forehand corner and then following it up with drops to her backhand.
Saina led 3-1 at the beginning of the third game but Okuhara reeled off nine straight points, with her speed posing serious questions for Saina. At one point, Saina missed a smash with the entire court open after Okuhara had got two returns in that most others would have struggled to get to.
What does Saina's inspired run mean for her?
Having failed to win a single major tournament in the past 14 months, this run will give Saina a lot of confidence and she'll look to make a deeper run at the six remaining Superseries tournaments this year. She would also eye a move up the Destination Dubai ranking and look to break back into the top 10 after slipping out of it for the first time in eight years.
While she has lost a yard of pace, she has added more nous to her repertoire with her backhand flicks and crosscourt drops being a delight to behold in this tournament. Saina has served the country with distinction for over a decade and there's more to come. Don't write this champion off yet.