Pusarla Venkat Sindhu notched up one of the finest victories of her six-year-old badminton career on Tuesday, when she settled the pretensions of second-seeded Chinese shuttler Wang Yihan, the 2012 Olympic silver medallist, by a 22-20, 21-19 scoreline in a women's singles quarter-final encounter at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
In a pulsating, nerve-wracking 55-minute battle royale at the Riocentro Pavilhao on Tuesday evening, the 21-year-old Indian played with great maturity and poise, to show that her two World Championship bronze medals (in 2013 and 2014) were not a flash in the pan. Sindhu curbed her natural attacking instincts, and played a patient waiting game against the strokeful, guileful Chinese star, to run out a worthy winner.
The ninth seed will now meet diminutive Japanese shuttler Nozomi Okuhara, who wore down her strongly built compatriot Akane Yamaguchi, and bounced back from a disastrous start to secure a 11-21, 21-17, 21-10 verdict. Sixth-ranked Okuhara, also aged 21, has a 3-1 head-to-head advantage against Sindhu, including wins in the last three encounters between the two.
The other semi-final will feature reigning world champion and top seed Carolina Marin of Spain against China's world No 3 and defending Olympic champion Li Xuerui. Both players came through their respective quarter-finals with comfortable straight-game victories, revealing impressive form in the run-up to what will be their sixth clash, with left-handed Marin having won the last two after losing the first three.
The feisty Spaniard was not unduly stretched by Sung Ji Hyun, winning 21-12, 21-16 for her 13th victory against the Korean in 14 meetings. Li was equally untroubled in her 21-12, 21-17 win against Thailand's Porntip Buranaprasertsuk, who had beaten Saina Nehwal's conqueror, Marija Ulitina of Ukraine, in the round-of-16.
In terms of quality, Sindhu's encounter with Yihan was undoubtedly the best of the four quarter-finals. The talented and vastly experienced Chinese star, who had won the World Championships in 2012, went into the match with a 4-2 advantage in head-to-head clashes against Sindhu, but it was the Indian who had won their most recent encounter — at the Denmark Open in 2015.
Sindhu was also riding on a rich streak of form that had seen sideline quality players like Canada's Chinese-born Michelle Li and Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu-ying in earlier rounds. And the hallmark of her success has been her ability to execute different strategies and tactics against different players, in the manner of a true champion.
Yihan, with the advantage of a bye into the quarter-finals at the end of the preliminary group stage, would have clearly been the fresher of the two players, but Sindhu was confident of her own fitness levels, and was not afraid of the match going the full distance.
Clearly, coach Pullela Gopichand had warned his ward of the Chinese star's ability to parry an opponent's attacking stroke with an even more aggressive counter. So instead of countering Yihan's aggression with some heavy smashing of her own, the Indian preferred to prolong the rallies and keep the shuttle in play. Those long legs had little difficulty reaching the four corners of the court and getting the bird back.
However, this uncharacteristic restraint saw Sindhu go into the breather with an 8-11 deficit, which she promptly narrowed to 11-12 after the break, and restored parity at 14-14 with a body smash that would have done her compatriot Saina Nehwal proud.
As the match wore on, it became apparent that Yihan was desperately attempting to curtail the length of the bruising, probing rallies. She kept trying to engage Sindhu in sharp parallel play, and found herself winning most of the short, quick points.
But the Indian soon got wise to these tactics, and kept Yihan mostly pinned to the baseline with late flick clears, testing out the Chinese player's suspect right knee which was bandaged. Sindhu also repeatedly employed the deep high serve in preference to the low short serve, to keep the wristy Yihan away from the net at the start of each rally.
A superb crosscourt smash from the forehand backcourt saw Sindhu take the lead for the first time at 18-17, then reach 20-18, only for her celebrated nerves to act up. At the end of an amazing rally, in which the Chinese threw everything she had into the fray, Yihan restored parity. Luckily, Sindhu would not be denied, and took the game at 22-20 on her third game-point.
Unlike in the first game, Sindhu opened up the second much more positively, and forged 5-2 and 8-3 ahead. The doughty Yihan pulled back to 7-9 with some excellent overhead crosscourt drops that caught Sindhu napping. Nevertheless, the Indian went into the break with a 11-8 lead, which she enlarged to 14-11 on resumption.
At 18-13, Sindhu was within touching distance of the tape, and one waited for her by-now-customary display of nerves. Sure enough, the Indian tightened up, and played most untidily to concede a string of six points, allowing Yihan to take the lead at 19-18 with a display of steely nerves.
But, as she had done in the opening stanza, Sindhu tightened her game just in time, executed a stinging body smash, and induced Yihan to net the return of a hard push to the body, to put the finishing touches on a glorious triumph. She now has a fantastic chance of reaching the final, as she next plays Japan's Okuhara, the least dangerous of the other three women left standing in the event.