All England Open 2021: PV Sindhu’s never-say-die spirit lands her quarter-final win over Akane Yamaguchi

Sindhu rallied from a one-game deficit to pip Yamaguchi by a 16-21, 21-16, 21-19 scoreline, barging into the semi-finals of the All England Open.

Shirish Nadkarni March 20, 2021 12:48:25 IST
All England Open 2021: PV Sindhu’s never-say-die spirit lands her quarter-final win over Akane Yamaguchi

Indian badminton star PV Sindhu had been going through a lean patch since her 2019 World Championships title victory. AFP

Good players find a way to lose when they are playing great. But great players find a way to win when they are nowhere near their best.

If one accepts the intrinsic truth of this maxim, then Pusarla Venkata Sindhu qualified on the evening of Friday, 19 March, to be bracketed among the greats of contemporary badminton.

Drawing on the final, fading reserves of mental strength and resolution that she has shown several times in the past to possess, the willowy Indian shuttler rallied from a one-game deficit to pip the ultra-fit, never-say die Japanese No 3 seed Akane Yamaguchi by a 16-21, 21-16, 21-19 scoreline, barging into the semi-finals of the All England Open World Tour Super 1000 Badminton Championships at Arena Birmingham for the second time in her illustrious career.

As thousands of Indian badminton lovers stayed glued to their television sets while the clock ticked well past the midnight mark into Saturday morning, a gasping, tottering Sindhu, stretched on the torture rack by the repeated warnings of the chair umpire to quit wasting time and get on with it, found a way to breach the pain barrier and stick her nose out at the finish line.

As WhatsApp messages scorched the air waves, and Indian fans exulted in the Homeric triumph, an ultra-enthusiastic badminton lover (Manoj Ramchandran, father of national doubles player Shlok) encapsulated the final moments of the thrilling 76-minute quarter-final thus: “Akane was the better player, but Sindhu won because she refused to lose. She was clearly winded, but after every towel-down or shuttle-change break, she took a couple of points, and maintained parity till Akane imploded at 19-all.”

The result provided a timely reminder of why the 25-year-old Sindhu remains a formidable big-tournament player with a gold, two silvers and two bronze medals in the World Championships held since 2013 along with the 2016 Olympics silver medal in her bulging kitty. Certainly, she does not have the phenomenal talent of a Tai Tzu Ying, or the dazzling speed and single-minded focus of a Carolina Marin, but she does have an indomitable will to really chase that which she has set her mind to achieve.

Less than a fortnight ago, when Sindhu was bulldozed into abject submission in the Swiss Open final by a 21-12, 21-5 margin by a rampaging Marin, there were many who despaired of her ever again touching the heights of her sublime performance over the last three days of the 2019 World Championships, when she had overcome the likes of Taiwan’s Tai Tzu Ying (over the extra points in a nail-biting decider), China’s Chen Yufei (by a 21-14, 21-7 scoreline) and Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara (by an astonishing 21-7, 21-7 margin) to capture the gold medal.

The win in the final over Okuhara, and the commanding manner of the victory, were doubly sweet since, two years earlier, she had surrendered to the pint-sized Japanese at 21-19, 20-22, 22-20 in the 2017 World Championship final. That titanic battle-royal, which lasted ten minutes shy of the two-hour mark, remains one of the all-time classics in the annals of the game.

But to return to the story of the just-concluded All England 2021 quarter-final. Sindhu’s form, in the year-and-a-half following her World Championship win at Basel in August 2019, had been so patchy that she failed to win another title on the tour. A desperate attempt to hone her training over two months in England in the closing days of 2020 had seemed to prove counter-productive, since all the hard work she had put in had improved her musculature, but reduced her agility and footspeed.

Sindhu went into the match against Yamaguchi with a 10-7 lead in career meetings, but had losses in their three most recent clashes at the back of her mind. On the plus side, she had height, reach and power in her shots, but on the flip side were Yamaguchi’s exceptional fitness and stamina, and her attritional abilities to stretch rallies to the point where an opponent simply does not reach the shuttle because the legs have gone rubbery.

When the 23-year-old Japanese stayed ahead almost all the way in the opening game to bag it with a degree of comfort, the writing appeared to be on the wall. If Sindhu was able to make a comeback in the second game, some credit must be given to the diabolical drift in the vast arena that caused several of Yamaguchi’s best strokes to either sail out at the baseline, or to drop into the side lobby on Sindhu’s backhand side.

On hindsight, one must give credit to Sindhu for selecting the “bad” side after she lost the toss and her antagonist chose to serve. Playing with the drift in the opening stanza consigned her to its loss, as Yamaguchi could hit as hard as she wished while playing against the drift, and get the shuttle to still land in at the opposite baseline. But the huge advantage she had was that she had the “good” side, i.e. against the breeze, in the second half of the decider, after the mid-game change of courts.

Sindhu thus played a tactically sound game, and went in prepared for the long haul. The ploy very nearly backfired, because the lengthy rallies sapped her strength, even as the younger Japanese continued bouncing on the court like a veritable football.

What turned the tide in the Indian’s favour was the fact that her opponent, fearing that her tosses would go out at the baseline, was reduced to keeping the shuttle down as much as possible, and indulging in flat, parallel rallies. This was playing right into Sindhu’s hands, since her albatross-like reach gave her an advantage of several crucial inches on her diminutive rival on both flanks.

The excruciating tension for both players and TV viewers in the final reaches of the match had to be experienced to be remembered for subsequent discussions on the memorable encounter. Getting some valuable tips at the mid-game time-outs from her new coach Park Tae Sang, Sindhu tread a very thin line as she was repeatedly chided for time-wasting by the chair umpire, who had handed out yellow cards for that offence in a second-round men’s doubles match the previous day. She was also often refused permission to go for her towel at courtside.

In a crunch situation, where her lungs were literally starved of oxygen, Sindhu used her final weapon — the Hawk-eye review for a shot that she well knew was well out at the Yamaguchi backhand sideline. The resultant respite, while technology confirmed the unsuccessful challenge, enabled her to return rejuvenated and grab the next two points — until she could prevail upon the chair umpire to allow her use of her towel again!

Let us say this was a very significant win for Sindhu. Her lengthy sojourn on the court on Friday could well result in her being stiff and stale when she takes on Thailand’s Pornpawee Chochuwong, in the semi-final on Saturday. A factor of comfort for the Indian would be the 4-1 advantage she holds against the emergent Thai youngster in head-to-head meetings, with a win in their most recent encounter.

If the rangy Indian can coax something more this evening out of her tired body and equally exhausted mind, she has a fair chance of making her first final at the All England, a tournament which has seen a congregation of current and former world champions at the semi-final stage. Reigning world champion Sindhu could then take on the winner of the other semi-final between Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon, the 2013 world champion, and Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara, who reigned supreme in 2017.

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