Pullela Gopichand is no Jose Mourinho. No brazen declarations, no over the top statements. The Portuguese sits like a sullen, brash, giant billboard on the bench, the Indian, a calm force, a few feet away from his player. Both coaches are acknowledged the world’s best. For Gopi, his biggest night, except for the one when he won the All-England in 2001, is tonight when PV Sindhu takes on Spain’s Carolina Marin in the women’s singles badminton final. Before the Indian contingent left for Rio, Gopi had said, underplaying Sindhu’s role in Rio: “I do expect our badminton players to do well.” In most interviews, before the team boarded the flight to Rio, it was always “Saina is in good form and we do expect a medal from her”. Gopi played the underdog card; as understated as a poker player, unwilling to show his hand.
But tonight could be different. There is no doubt that Sindhu is the underdog in the battle against Marin. Numbers show it – Both have played each other six times with Sindhu winning twice and Marin the rest. But both times that Sindhu beat Marin, the match went to three sets. In the other four matches, Marin won in straight games.
Maybe, Gopi has already read political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft’s How the Weak Win Wars though at this point of time Sindhu hardly looks weak. Toft’s logic is simple that when underdogs choose not to play by the usual rules and acknowledge their weakness and play with unconventional strategy, they usually win.
That strategy worked against Nozomi Okuhara where Sindhu, in four matches against the Japanese, had won only one and that too as a junior. But playing with power and precision, cutting out all unforced errors, Okuhara couldn’t understand a player she was expected to win against. If one looks at the semi-final again, you would see a good sprinkling of overhead and underarm defensive clear shots that gave Sindhu that space to judge and crack the code against the Japanese. In fact, five times in the match, the cross court back-hand dipped across the net, leaving Okuhara wondering who she was up against.
After the euphoria of the semi-final win against Okuhara, Gopi was calm when asked about Sindhu’s chances in the final. “The tide is on her side and let’s see how far we can go.”
In the run-up to the Olympic gold medal match, Sindhu has played eleven finals in her career so far, winning six, which is a high percentage. Out of these, she has straight set victories four times while twice she has been taken the distance before winning. She has been beaten in straight games four times while losing one three-set match.
Carolina Marin is a different animal. Apart from the Chinese, she uses the court very well, something that Sindhu did against her Japanese opponent. And at the net, Marin, at the moment, is unbeatable. Her hairpin net shot has a life of its own, dropping like a dead bird just when you think it might go an extra inch.
A couple of years back, Marin was another ‘badminton’ player in football and tennis crazy Spain. Today, she is a badminton superstar and can no longer walk around in her home town in Andalucía, in the south of Spain. The 22-year-old is the first Spanish player to top the world rankings and win the World Championship twice, in 2014 and 2015; once beating Saina Nehwal in the final.
In an interview, she once said, "When I went to the coaching centre at the age of 14, my coach asked me as my highest dream in the sport, what I wanted to get in my badminton career. I said ‘I want to be the world No 1, World Champion, Olympic Champion and European Champion’." The only title that eludes her now is the Olympic gold.
In 2015, she has had a super run, defending her World Championship and winning five Super-Series titles including the All-England Open. She idolizes Nadal and compares her play with him. "We fight until the end, we show our opponents we want to beat them, we die until the match is gone. That’s why Rafa is my idol," she once said. For Rio, Marin has brought in extra focus into training and practice in order to land the biggest prize in world badminton — the Olympic gold. She has been training seven hours a day for six days a week which in terms of fitness puts her at her peak. But a shoulder injury has been causing problems. In the run-up to the Olympic final, she hasn’t used the smash much and limited the use of the back-hand cross court, a shot she plays with a lot of deft and variety.
The women’s final has generated enough steam and pressure to power a Titanic. "Well of course even as a player or as a coach there is only as much pressure as you take," says Gopi. "I think the players feel it because of their responsibility and their anticipation or excitement. And as a coach I believe that a lot of work has gone in, in the last few years to actually get us here and a medal would not only be a boost to a player but to the whole nation which looks at this as an inspiration.”
The bag of expectations is quite full at the moment. The clichéd line of a 'billion hearts beating' has its pressure points. It’s also time to move away from the usual lines of 'reaching the final is also an achievement' to 'winning finals should be the ambition.'
Would she zip off the blocks with speed and pace and hustle Marin into thinking beyond her game plan? Or do we see Sindhu all intensity, breaking down the Spanish defence not giving an inch nor committing too many unforced errors. In sport where power differentials of a tenth of a per cent can be decisive, Gopi’s thinking and Sindhu’s implementation can be the difference between gold and silver.