Against the backdrop of what she has achieved in the 2016 Rio Olympics thus far, shuttler Pusarla Venkata Sindhu should not be content with anything less than the silver medal – though she also has a great chance of going for gold.
The luck of the draw and her sterling performances in the last two rounds have combined to give the lanky Indian the least imposing of the three possible opponents in Thursday’s women’s singles badminton semi-final. Japan’s pint-sized Nozomi Okuhara, at 21-years-old, the same age as the Hyderabadi girl, inspires far less fear than either the two-time world champion Carolina Marin of Spain, or the defending Olympic champion Li Xuerui of China, who have been left to battle it out in the other semi-final.
The major reason why the ninth-seeded Sindhu has given herself an outstanding chance of barging into the final is that she has usurped the pride of place in the bottom half of the draw by sidelining the 2012 world champion, Olympic Games silver medallist and number two seed, Wang Yihan of China, at the quarter-final stage. This, after having the full measure of the tricky, talented Taiwanese Tai Tzu-ying in the round of 16 stage.
The rich vein of form that Sindhu has shown at these Olympics, plus her new-found ability to play different opponents with strategies that are tailor-made for them, means that she will go into the semi-final against Okuhara as the favourite, despite the fact that she trails 1-3 in career head-to-head meetings against the diminutive Japanese.
Not that the match will be easy. Okuhara, who at 16 became the youngest women’s singles national champion of Japan in 2011, really shot into the limelight by winning the 2015 season-ending Super Series finals in Dubai last December. This pocket dynamo from Nagano is arguably one of the fittest players on the women’s circuit. The longer a match lasts, the happier she is, for she can let her incredible fitness levels weigh in the balance.
In addition to her fitness, Okuhara possesses speed and accuracy of stroke, plus a doughty defence that helps her to prolong rallies. She is ridiculously flexible, stretching beautifully on both flanks and often doing near-splits, but then bouncing back to the centre of the court with minimal fuss, in anticipation of the next stroke. Her best stroke is the deceptive overhead cross-court drop shot from the backhand baseline.
All these attributes were on display in the Olympic quarter-final against her compatriot Akane Yamaguchi, a powerfully built player who breezed through the opening game for the loss of a mere 10 points. Little did Yamaguchi know then that, after a closely contested second game, Okuhara would return the favour of the first game, bagging it by a thumping 21-11 scoreline. To wear down the strong and fit Yamaguchi was no mean feat; and Okuhara achieved it with aplomb.
If one analyses the earlier matches between Okuhara and Sindhu, it becomes apparent that the Japanese girl has employed exactly the same tactics that helped her reduce her fellow countrywoman to a panting, leaden-footed near-spectator in the decider of their quarter-final on Tuesday.
Sindhu’s solitary victory against Okuhara came in their first meeting, way back in 2012, when she edged the Japanese out in the Asia Youth Under-19 championships by a desperately close margin, at 18-21, 21-17, 22-20. Thereafter, the two have met thrice – once each in 2014, ’15 and ’16; and Okuhara has won each of those encounters. All their tussles till date have gone the full distance.
Even more worrying for Sindhu are the scores of the third and deciding games of each of those three matches – 21-11 in the 2014 Hong Kong Open, 21-8 in the 2015 Malaysia Masters, and 21-12 in the 2016 Happening Hyderabad Team Championship. In other words, Sindhu has been found signally lacking in staying power to last those long-drawn, bruising encounters against the super-fit Okuhara.
What, then, are the options open to Sindhu in Thursday’s Olympic semi-final? It would be suicidal to employ the tactics that she did against Wang Yihan, using the deep, high serve, prolonging the rallies and waiting patiently for openings. The Hyderabadi had also played a basically defensive game against Taiwan’s Tai Tzu-ying, and thrown her off her rhythm by getting a vast number of shuttles back.
Against the baby-faced Japanese, however, Sindhu’s best bet would be to keep the rallies short, and attack as strongly as she is known to do. In other words, give her natural attacking game full rein, and do her level best to finish the match by the short route. Low serve, dribble or counter-dribble, fast drop or smash. Giving Okuhara any sort of long-rally rhythm would be tantamount to begging for trouble.
There is also the recurring problem of end-of-match nerves. The Indian literally freezes up with the winning post in sight, and concedes a string of negative points. She did this against both her previous two opponents, but managed to get out of jail each time. She cannot afford it against Okuhara.
One final issue. Right through her career, Sindhu has suffered from inconsistency. She has beaten the best in the world on one day, and lost to a relative nonentity the very next. Going by her career record, the lanky Hyderabadi is scheduled to have a meltdown against Okuhara, after administering the knockout punch to a player of Yihan’s calibre. About 1.3 billion Indians will be praying for a departure from this pattern.
PV Sindhu has the basic wherewithal to reverse this trend of lengthy matches with Nozomi Okuhara. The key lies in the execution.