Badminton Asia Championship: PV Sindhu fails to break He Bingjiao's dominance; loses by wafer-thin margin
PV Sindhu's mental resolve bodes well for her career, but it is not at the same implacable level as that of five-time world champion Lin Dan.
While it is true that Pusarla Venkata Sindhu's new-found mental resolve bodes well for her future badminton career, it cannot be said to be at the same implacable level as that of five-time world champion and two-time Olympic gold medallist Lin Dan.
How else does one explain the fact that the lanky Indian made up a potentially crippling 8-1 deficit in the third and deciding game of her Badminton Asia Championship women's singles quarter-final against China's He Bingjiao on Friday; neutralised the advantage at 12-all, then kept up with her left-handed Chinese adversary all the way to the finishing line, saved two match-points, then wasted one match point of her own, and eventually capitulated at 21-15, 14-21, 22-24 after 77 minutes of edge-of-the-seat badminton?
There was not a single soul in the jampacked Wuhan Sports Centre Gymnasium, in the Central Chinese city of Wuhan, who was willing to cheer the fourth-seeded Sindhu against their own player, seeded four spots behind the Indian – who went into the match with a 4-3 career head-to-head advantage in their seven previous meetings. The crowd kept up a relentless cacophony of support, chanting Bingjiao's name in an effort to lift their compatriot's spirits and will her to win the epic tussle.
But Sindhu had experienced all this, barely six months earlier, in a similar seething cauldron of hostile sound in Fuzhou; and came through that searching "agni-pariksha" (trial by fire) with flying colours.
She had won her maiden Super Series title, the China Open Super Series Premier, at the expense of the home nation's Sun Yu, after a similar battle-royale, the sole difference being that she had been in total command of the decider, and full value for her 21-11, 17-21, 21-11 success.
Against Bingjiao, Sindhu dominated the opening game, taking an 11-5 lead at the mid-game interval, and maintaining a commanding lead all the way to the tape. But she found the chunky Chinese southpaw returning the compliment in the second stanza, to almost exactly reverse the opening game's result.
All looked lost for the Indian as Bingjiao streaked away to a massive 8-1 lead in the decider, on the back of some aggressive positive play, and a clutch of nervous errors from her rival. But Sindhu steadied and began reeling the Chinese player in, point by point. Still, an 11-7 lead at the change of ends looked adequate for Bingjiao to stamp her seal of supremacy on the match.
Nevertheless, the world number five's fightback gathered further momentum and she was able to restore parity at 12-all. Thereafter, it turned into a rousing, no-holds-barred battle as the two adversaries went neck-and-neck until 16-all, when Bingjiao responded to the crowd's wild cheering and went up 19-16. Sindhu fought back tigerishly to level the scores yet again at 19-all.
Bingjiao got two opportunities at 20-19 and 21-20 to close out the encounter, but the obdurate Sindhu was equal to the task on each occasion, and finally stood on the threshold of victory at 22-21. This, sadly, was the point at which she could not apply a Lin Dan-like closure. The Chinese left-hander stayed tough to take the final three points and bag a semi-final meeting with Japan's number two seed, Akane Yamaguchi.
The Indian badminton-lover would feel a stab of regret that Sindhu failed to cross that final hurdle, for it was a gilt-edged opportunity for her to reach the title round. The rangy Indian's game does not suit the pint-sized Japanese teenager, but Bingjiao's playing style works just fine for Yamaguchi, who leads the Chinese southpaw 3-1 in career meetings.
Of course, none of the three players left in the fray appears capable of halting the remorseless march of Chinese Taipei's world number one, Tai Tzu Ying, who has been in imperious form over the past six months. Tai has been handed the relatively easier task of taking on Korean giant-killer Lee Jang-mi in the semi-finals, after notching up a ruthless 21-11, 21-7 triumph against Chen Yufei of the host nation.
Lee, who made her way through the qualifying rounds, and accounted for Japan's Nozomi Okuhara and China's fifth-seeded Sun Yu in her opening two rounds in the tournament proper, had matters go all her own way while showing Thailand's Nitchaon Jindapol the exit gate, with a 21-19, 21-9 verdict. One simply cannot see Lee repeating that performance against the current queen of the badminton courts.
As for the men's singles, Malaysia's world number one, Lee Chong Wei, has been left with the formidable task of derailing a turbo-charged Chinese train which is barreling inexorably towards the top step of the victory rostrum. Three players from the host nation – second-seeded Chen Long, fourth-ranked Lin Dan and the number six seed, Shi Yuqi – made it to the last four stage with convincing victories over their quarter-final opponents.
Both Chong Wei and Lin Dan, who are slated to clash in the semi-finals, stayed on the court for less than three-quarters of an hour while showing lesser-ranked rivals the door. The top-seeded Chong Wei cut down Chinese Taipei's Hsu Jen Hao, conqueror of India's last hope, Ajay Jayaram, in the previous round, by a 21-18, 21-13 margin in 44 minutes, while his left-handed Chinese arch-rival had to labour for one minute less to settle the pretensions of another Taiwanese, Chou Tien Chen, at 21-14, 21-12.
The other semi-final will pit reigning world champion Chen Long against the runner-up in 2017 All England Super Series Premier, Shi Yuqi. Chen ambled gracefully through his match against the number eight seed from Hong Kong, Ng Ka Long Angus, for a 21-17, 21-13 verdict, while Shi scored a noteworthy triumph over the third-seeded Korean, Son Wan Ho, with a 21-16, 21-15 scoreline.
The undoubted pedigree of Chen Long makes him a raging hot favourite against Shi Yuqi, but it would be a braveheart who can predict the name of his opponent in the final. The full-throated support of his home crowd would no doubt give Lin Dan the edge in this 39th meeting with his long-time rival and close friend, Lee Chong Wei, but the latter would no doubt be champing at the bit to reverse the result of the Malaysia Open Super Series Premier final, in which Super Dan belled the lion in his own den.
At this point, it is safe to stick one's neck out and predict an all-Chinese final. A five-time former world champion versus a two-time reigning world champion. Lin Dan vs Chen Long, the pride of Chinese badminton.
The world number seven Indian will next play Hong Kong's world number 34 Cheung Ngan Yi in the group stage.
Sindhu is one of the favourites for the gold, especially in the absence of defending champion Carolina Marin, who missed the Games due to an injury.
"Tai Tzu got lucky with that net chord. At that level, the margins are just so small. It was her day, but I feel had I won that first game, probably the result of the match would have been different,” Sindhu said.