Rio de Janeiro: Four years after a bronze at London Games made her the toast of the nation, Saina Nehwal will once again carry a billion hopes when she along with the other six shuttlers, including doubles exponent Jwala Gutta, begin their campaign at the Rio Olympics here on Thursday.
Saina had started her Olympic journey as an 18-year-old when she reached the quarterfinals at the Beijing Games.
The loss suffered eight years ago to Indonesia's Maria Kristin Yulianti spurred her to scoop the bronze at London and she will be hungry to taste gold this time when she starts her campaign in Group G, which includes lesser-known players like Lohaynny Vicente and Maria Ulitina.
It has been an eventful couple of years for Saina as she shifted base from Hyderabad to Bangalore in early 2014 and trained under the watchful eyes of former chief coach Vimal Kumar.
She won a silver at All England and World Championship, clinched the India Open and coveted China Premier Super Series title and became the world No. 1.
But an ankle injury sustained in the end phase of last year troubled her and almost derailed her Olympic campaign before Saina fought back and regained her fitness and came up with a consistent run of performance at Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia which culminated with the Australian Open triumph in June.
At 26, it will be her best chance to win an Olympic gold and Saina said she is looking to "reach the peak" in that particular week.
"I take each tournament as it comes. My approach to the Games is very positive and I would like to keep it like that and focus on my game. I feel that on the day that I am 100 percent fit, I have the potential to defeat anyone," said the fifth seed who will take on Vicente in her tournament opener.
"I feel I am fit. It's important that you reach the peak and play your best during that particular week. That's what will count ultimately and will be the key. I am working hard on my half smashes to get closer to my goals."
Saina is likely to meet Thailand’s Porntip Buranaprasetsuk at the pre-quarterfinals and might face reigning champion Li Xuerui in the quarterfinals. Current world champion and European champion Carolina Marin is a likely rival in the semifinals, barring any hiccups in the earlier matches.
In women's singles, two-time world championship bronze medallist PV Sindhu will also look to make her Olympic debut count when she starts her campaign in Group M. The 21-year-old didn't have a good run-up to the Olympics but she does have the reputation of shocking big players. She has defeated top shuttlers like Li Xuerui, Yihan Wang and Carolina Marin.
The ninth seed has Hungary's Sarosi Laura and Commonwealth Games champion Michelle Li of Canada in her group.
The road ahead will get tough as she is likely to face Tzu Ying Tai of Chinese Taipei and might square off against 2012 Olympic silver medalist Wang Yihan in the semifinals and Sindhu will have to be consistent to come back with a medal.
"I have beaten all of them in the past and it gives me confidence but then it gets tougher and tougher as we play them again because they know our strokes and we know there game, so it is all about changing the strategy on the court. That would be the key," said the three-time Macau Open winner.
Srikanth in easy group
In men's singles, Kidambi Srikanth will carry India’s hopes as he battles in a highly- competitive field comprising Lee Chong Wei, Chen Long, Lin Dan and Jan O Jorgensen, among others.
The Guntur lad has already proved his mettle when he clinched the 2014 China Open and 2015 India Open to reach world No. 3 in June.
The 23-year-old has an easy draw, with Henri Hurskeinen of Sweden and Lino Munoz of Mexico in his group. Should he progress to the pre-quarterfinal stage, he is likely to face Jan O Jorgenson of Denmark.
"It has been a good two months for me. After a long time I could get a necessary break and I really could work on overall aspects of the game. It has been a dream to qualify for Olympics and I hope to make India proud," he said.
Among other Indians in the fray, 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medallist women's doubles pairs of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa and men's doubles combo of Manu Attri and Sumeth Reddy will be keen to shine in Rio.
The 2011 world championship bronze medalists, Jwala and Ashwini, who finished at the group stage despite winning two
matches out of three, will have a tough task, as they will face top seeds, Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo in the group stages, besides Dutch pair of Eefje Muskens and Selena Piek and Thailand's Supajirakul Puttita and Sapsiree Taerattanachai.
Manu and Sumeeth too have a difficult draw with second seeds Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan of Indonesia, world No.5 Chai Biao and Hong Wei of China and Japanese combo of Hiroyuki Endo and Kenichi Hayakawa in Group B.