Defending champion Saina Nehwal’s title defence lay in tatters after she suffered a narrow loss to Olympic Champion Li Xuerui in the semifinals of the India Open Super Series badminton tournament.

The 26-year-old Indian lost 20-22 21-17 19-21 to Li in an edge-of-the-seat thriller in the women’s singles competition, to draw curtains on Indian challenge at the Siri Fort Complex here.

In a nail-biting contest, Saina matched up to Li in the fast-paced rallies but she was not consistent in finishing the rallies. Li, on the other hand, blew hot and cold as some of her cross court half smashes caught Saina off-guard. Although she also faltered with many strokes.

b’Li Xuerui | Source: File photo/ Reuters’

Saina opened up a 8-5 lead early on and managed to stave off the challenge from Li till 11-9. But the Chinese soon managed to draw parity with two quick points and then turned the tables, reaching 16-13.

She roared back to level with a superb drop from the back court before Li found the net. The Chinese hit wide again and both were tied at 18-18. Another miscued smash and Saina was leading 19-18.

What followed was an energy-sapping rally that ended with a return, which Saina didn’t even try. But the Indian ensured she has the first shot to take advantage as she reached the game point with a smash that Li could only send to the net.

b’Saina Nehwal | Source: Reuters’

Li then produced a deceptive slice and with Saina hitting wide and then leaving another shot from Li on the right, it was all over.

In the second game, Saina zoomed to a 7-1 lead with Li committing too many unforced errors. The Chinese also faltered with her slices and drops, and Saina led 11-6 at the interval.

Saina produced a couple of accurate down the line smashes even as Li continued to struggle with her strokes. Then all of a sudden, Li gathered a flurry of points to narrow the gap to 14-17.

Another long rally ensued and Saina reached 20-17 when Li found the net. The Indian then grabbed it with a delectable drop to roar back into the contest.

In the decider, Saina once again marched ahead to a 6-2 lead. Li tried to narrow it down to 7-6 but Saina had her nose ahead 11-7 at the break after she engaged in a parallel game with Li.