Rio de Janeiro: Lanky shuttler PV Sindhu made an epoch-making entry into the final of the women's singles in Rio Olympics 2016 badminton when she outclassed Japan's higher-ranked Nozomi Okuhara and assured herself and the country of a medal, either gold or silver, on Thursday.
Sindhu, ranked 10th in the world, went one better than her senior Saina Nehwal, bronze medal winner in London four years ago, by becoming the first ever Indian to enter the summit clash in the shuttle game in the quadrennial sports spectacle.
Sindhu defeated her short-statured, third-seeded Japanese rival, the current All England champion and world No 6 six, 21-19 21-10 in 49 minutes with superb, attacking play to enter Friday's gold medal clash.
The Indian shuttler from Hyderabad, a two-time bronze medalist in world championships, will meet Spain's world No 1 Carolina Marin, who ousted defending champion Li Xuerei of China in the first semi-final with a 21-14 21-16 victory.
Sindhu's heart-warming feat came a day after woman grappler Sakshi Malik had won a bronze in the 58kg class to end the medal drought for India in the Games on the 12th day of competition.
Teen Indian golf sensation Aditi Ashok raised hopes of an Olympic medal as she stood just four strokes off the pace at tied 8th after the second round of the Women's Individual event on Thursday.
The 18-year-old was just four shots behind the leader, Stacey Lewis of US after firing a second successive three-under 68, which included five birdies against a couple of bogeys, to move to six-under 136.
However, another wrestler made a tame exit from the competition on Thursday to end the women's campaign in the ongoing Games.
Babita Kumari lost her opening women's 53kg category wrestling bout 1-5 against Maria Prevolaraki of Greece and got eliminated from the Games.
Much was expected of Babita, winner of two medals in past Commonwealth Games editions and bronze medalist in the World Championship in 2012, when she got on the mat a day after teammate Sakshi had provided India with their first medal in the Brazilian coastal city.
But the 26-year-old grappler could not succeed against the tight defense put up by her Greek rival and lost points in both the periods of their pre-quarter-final bout.
And when Maria too lost her quarter-final bout against Venezuela's Betzabeth Angelica Arguello Villegas 3-6, it spelt curtains for the Indian's slim hopes of replicating Sakshi's feat and win a bronze through the repechage process.
In both the three-minute periods, Babita got a leg hold on her rival but the Greek somehow managed to extricate out of the difficult situation and turn the tables on the Indian grappler.
On Wednesday, while Sakshi won bronze in the 58kg, Babita's cousin Vinesh Phogat suffered a ligament tear during her bout in the 48kg class against a Chinese rival, got stretchered out and also bowed out of the wrestling competition.
In the badminton women's singles semifinal clash, Sindhu had a 1-3 head-to-head record against Okuhara but all that went for a toss as the Indian came out with a well-thought strategy, engaging the Japanese in long-rallies with her angled returns and deft drops.
In the opening game which lasted 29 minutes, Sindhu opened up a 4-1 lead early on and rode on Okuhara's unforced errors to extend the advantage to 8-4. The Indian engaged her rival in long rallies and tried to vary the pace and finish them with well-executed drops.
A cross-court forehand return after a long rally which consisted of 32 strokes helped Sindhu reach 9-6 before the Indian reached the interval with a 11-6 advantage after Okuhara hit long.
The Hyderabadi pushed the Japanese to the corners by playing half smashes and drops, while Okuhara continued to find the net while trying to play the cross-court drops from the baseline.
Leading 14-10, Sindhu hit wide and long before coming up with a superb drop even as Okuhara forehand returns.
At 16-18, Sindhu failed to negotiate a body return but she again caught hold of the shuttle early using her height and sent it sailing out of the Japanese reach. A missed net shot by Okuhara saw Sindhu reach the game point.
What ensued next was a long rally with Okuhara hitting across as the Indian grabbed the opening game after the Japanese found the net.
Sindhu once again opened up a 3-0 lead but the Japanese soon clawed back and grabbed a slender 5-3 lead with the Indian finding it difficult to keep the shuttle inside the court.
The duo moved neck-and-neck from 5-5 to 8-8. A forecourt deception gave a point to Sindhu but she hit wide again.
Sindhu retrieved everything that was thrown at her but she rushed on to a stroke to hit the net. At the interval, Sindhu managed a slender 11-10 lead after her return landed at the corner of the court.
Sindhu came out all cylinders blazing after the change of sides and reeled off 11 straight points with the help of her array of strokes, which included some brilliant backhand flick and drops, to completely demolish the third-seeded Japanese.
It was a deceptive return which helped Sindhu reach a massive 10-point match point and then eked her name into the history books with a smash that caught Okuhara at the forecourt.
For the record, Marin also entered her maiden Olympic final beating London Olympic champion Li Xuerui 21-14 21-16.
Earlier, Sakshi ended India's wait for a medal by clinching the bronze in the 58kg category, pulling off a sensational 8-5 victory over Aisuluu Tynybekova in the Play-off bout.
The 23-year-old from Rohtak became only the fourth woman athlete from India to win an Olympic medal as she earned the dramatic win after falling behind 0-5 in the do-or-die bout on day 12.
Weightlifter Karnam Malleshwari (2000, Sydney), boxer MC Mary Kom (2012, London) and shuttler Saina Nehwal (2012, London) were the only other women players from India to have won a medal in Olympics.
Like in three of the four other bouts earlier in the day, Sakshi won the crucial bout after coming from behind. She, in fact, had lost 2-9 in the quarter-finals to Russia's Valeria Koblova in the fifth bout of the day before getting a second chance in repechage when her conqueror reached the final.
Sakshi's victory brought cheers to the Indian contingent that had endured agonising 11 days without a medal.
Sakshi turned the tables on the Kyrgyzstan wrestler in the dying seconds of the bout as Tynybekova was in complete command in most part of the clash.
Tynybekova grabbed Sakshi's leg and quickly earned two points before adding one more for the Indian's passivity.
She repeated her move and successfully bagged two more points to lead 5-0 at the break.
Sakshi could open the scoring only in the second period and got two points after throwing her rival down and out of the mat. She then managed to earn two points again with a similar move to bring down the margin to 4-5.
Thereafter, it was no looking back for the Indian girl and she took the opponent down to level the scores 5-5. But she did not stop there and gained three more points by pinning down the Kyrgyzstan wrestler in the dying moments of the match.
She had earlier stormed into the bronze medal play-off round with a dominating performance in her repechage round, where she thrashed Orkhon Purevdorj of Mongolia 12-3. Both the wrestlers matched each other in the first period and the scores were 2-2 at the break.