NEW DELHI, Dec 23: Circa 2006 celebrated the birth of a new sporting star in Saina Nehwal, who burst onto the international badminton scene with feats which no Indian shuttler had achieved ever before.
Sixteen-year-old Saina won a major international title, stood at the runner up podium at World Junior Championship, helped Indian team to a bronze medal finish in Commonwealth Games and made some big names of the world bite the dust.
In her very first year in international circuit, the Hyderabad-based teenager was India's top women badminton player, climbing a staggering 87 rungs in the singles rankings to attain her career-best ranking of world number 27 three weeks back.
Starved of sporting icons, the media and the badminton fraternity hailed Saina as the brightest prospect to emerge from the country in years.
It took 21 years for an Indian to win the prestigious All England title when Pullela Gopichand won it in 2001, after Prakash Padukone's famous 1980 triumph.
Shuttle queen Aparna Popat has done the country proud in many international meets and Saina emerged as an inheritor of that legacy.
There were other proud moments for the sport as well with the country earning a quarterfinal appearance in Thomas Cup and a bronze medal in the mixed team event of the Commonwealth Games.
India also swept the honours in South Asian Games in Colombo, winning five gold, four silver medals and one bronze medal. If 2005 was tennis sensation Sania Mirza's year, 2006 belonged to Saina, who showed a burning desire to excel and who dreams of winning an Olympic medal.
Always regarded as a promise in the domestic arena, the Gopichand protege even took her admirers by surprise by the way she blossomed in the international scene.
Saina created history by becoming the first Indian woman to win a four-star badminton grand prix when she won the Philippines Open title in Manila in May. She went on to record sterling wins in other events as the badminton fraternity world over took notice of the young girl from India.
She finished the year on a high when she defended her Indian Satellite Open title in Mumbai. But above all Saina challenged the superiority of the nimble-footed Chinese, Malaysian and Koreans and showed that will and guts could transcend any barrier.
That she would make it a memorable year was evident when she scored big wins in the Uber Cup qualifiers in Jaipur in February. India upset Thailand 3-2 with young Saina showing nerves of steel to overcome the challenge of Sarojita Chansrisukot in the decider of the thrilling tie.
Although India's hopes of making it to the final round were dashed by Singapore, Saina played another stunner against Xing Aiying before losing narrowly.
In the Melbourne Games, a bold move by coach Vimal Kumar saw India bag the bronze medal. After initial hiccups, Kumar chose to play Saina in the singles in place of the seasoned Popat and the teenager did not let her coach down.
Manchester Games' gold medallist Li Li of Singapore and runner up Tracey Hallam of England both fell to the Saina. In the bronze medal match, India beat New Zealand with Saina showing the door to Rebecca Bellingham.
Having already got the tag of a giant killer, Saina was out to prove it in the Phillipines Open. The unseeded 86-ranked Saina started her campaign by beating Malaysia's Sutheaswari Mudukasan, a player ranked more than 50 notches above her. Japan's Imai Sachiyo was the next to go.
And then came the most astonishing wins of all when she shocked World No. 4 and top seed Xu Huaiwen of Germany in the semi-finals. In the final she beat Pei Xian Julia Wong of Malaysia to make a dream start to her international career.
After failing to make much of a impression in the Asian Junior Championship where she reached the third round, Saina was determined to make amends in World Junior championship.
Seeded 14th in the Incheon tournament, Saina overcame the Malaysian and Chinese challenge before going past local favourite Bae Youn Joo of Korea to make it the title round, where she lost to top seed Wang Yihan from China.
In the domestic circuit Saina, however, lost to the guile of the seasoned Popat in the senior nationals for the second time in a row at the start of the season.
It also turned out to be a memorable year for Popat, who not only grabbed the title for the record ninth-time but also got the well-deserved Arjuna Award.
Popat also showed her pristine form when she beat Ponsana Salakjit in Uber Cup and Li Li in Melbourne, where she fell in the quarters while defending her bronze medal.
There was also change of guard in the coaching front as Gopichand took over from the former national champion Vimal Kumar, who guided India in Commonwealth and Thomas Cup. Another young Hyderabadi P Kashyap was a rapid riser in the charts and upset Przemyslaw Wacha of Poland to reach the semi-final of the Bitburger Open.
Kashyap broke into the top 100 of singles world rankings and is currently occupying 46th position, the third Indian on the charts after Chetan Anand (34) and Nikhil Kanetkar (43), the runner up at the Victorian International and India International tournament in Mumbai.
National Champion Anup Sridhar reached the quarter-finals of the Singapore Open. His big wins came against Dicky Palyama of Netherlands.
Indian men's team contributed its bit by defeating fancied Germany in the group stages of the Thomas Cup before routing New Zealand in the knock-out phase to reach the quarter-finals, but lost to Denmark and ended their challenge.
Badminton Association of India, however, made headlines for all the wrong reasons as senior shuttlers like Anand and Trupti Murgunde decided not to join its elite camp which aims at finding potential winners for Delhi Commonwealth Games 2010.
The association also decided to infuse young blood into the team and sidelined pros like Murgunde. Anand, snubbed by BAI for missing camps, had a mixed year but remained India's top shuttler at 34th place.
In the SA Games, Anand and Murgunde claimed the men's and women's singles title, beating compatriot Kanetkar and Meenakshi respectively. India also bagged the doubles gold in all the three section.
Talent in the junior ranks came to the fore as India finished eighth in the world junior team event with an impressive win against Germany. (source: IndiaTimes)