Badminton: India's Saina Nehwal breaks her All-England barrier

BIRMINGHAM, England (AFP) - Saina Nehwal, the world number three from India, overcame another significant barrier when she reached the final of the All-England championships for the first time in seven appearances.

Already the first woman from her country to win a Super Series title, as well as the first Indian to win an Olympic medal at badminton, Nehwal now earned herself a famous day at the legendary century-old tournament by overcoming the surprise survivor from China, Sun Yu, 21-13, 21-13.

She did so because her movement, even though she was feeling a little sluggish, was significantly better than in previous years, because her game has developed wider options, and because she has learned to handle better the relentless pressure of Indian national expectations.

Despite these improvements she started both games indifferently against a tall opponent capable of covering wide areas of court economically. Nehwal was 2-7 and 7-10 down in the first game and 6-9 and 9-11 down in the second.

She responded by "picking up" as many shuttles as she could, by focusing and battling hard, and by capitalising on an evident psychological advantage each time she got her nose in front.

It was nevertheless the mental side which, as so often for her, was the biggest part of the struggle.

"It's a big hurdle because many people think I should get to the final anyway - and that I should win every tournament I play," Nehwal said. "I like that, but it's not easy. So I just watched Shah Rukh Khan films and tried to play my best.

The moments when it became clear that Nehwal was likely to succeed happened in the second half of each game. She reached 17-13 in the first after a long rally which she finished with a brilliant clip to the net from a none-too-easy position, and later won seven points in a row from 14-13 in the second game with a mixture of attack and defence, with overheads and at the net, as Sun began to flag.

The 21-year-old from Dalian had nevertheless shown she has considerable potential, both with her performance in this defeat and during two victories previously, against Ratchanok lntanon, the former world champion, and Li Xuerui, the Olympic champion.

"Playing the semi-final at the All-England is an honour, and next time I shall try to do better," Sun said. "Saina has improved a lot in the last couple of months, but this has given me confidence that I can improve."

Nehwal was due for a final against the winner of Carolina Marin, the world champion from Spain, and Tai Tzu Ying, the seventh seeded Taiwanese player, against either of whom she might be regarded as the favourite.

She admitted she hadn't even expected to reach the semis because she had been confronted by Wang Yihan, the former world champion from China, whom she had never before beaten in a completed match. But Nehwal had been at her best, even better than against Sun.

Now she needed a different mentality, Nehwal reckoned. "I shall try to think of it tomorrow as just another super Series event. If I start thinking that this is an All-England final I am going to play, it's pressure," she said.

The she added: "If I win I will get a card from my father; otherwise not."