The sideways drift at the Odense Sportspark made life difficult for the reigning World Champion and fifth seed PV Sindhu, up against An Se Young of Korea.
The sprightly 17-year-old Young, whose star is on the rise, went into the second-round clash against Sindhu at the Denmark Open with her cards hidden – both players were meeting for the first time on tour – and some intrigue over the challenge that she could present.
That was, owing majorly to her giant-killing prowess. This year alone, Young has wins over the former World No 1 Li Xuerei, and the current holder of the spot, Tai Tzu Ying, which have given her a measure of notoriety amongst opposing camps.
To say that Sindhu and her ever-watchful corner, helmed by Pullela Gopichand, hadn’t read much into their opponent would amount to being overly critical of what went down.
To say that Sindhu was undercooked for the clash wouldn’t be so wrong though. After all, Sindhu hasn’t had much game time against quality opponents post her triumph at the World Championships in August.
Since then, she has suffered a second-round, and a first-round exit at the hands of lower-ranked opponents at the China and Korea Open respectively.
As for An Se Young, the nimble Korean's mix of aggression with tactful stroke-play meant that Sindhu always found her opponent hot on her heels. Moreover, Young abstained from letting her emotions show for the duration of the match. All the while, Sindhu was continually found looking towards her coaches' corner, seeking instructions for survival.
In many ways, Young was every bit of the Chinese shuttler who has honed her skills in a strictly regimented academy on the outskirts of the Jingzhou province.
It seemed she knew full well that the sport is played as much with the mind as with the shots at hand, and never allowed herself to get trumped by the occasion.
At the outset, Young seemed to have gained a firm grasp over the drift, taming it to her liking while rushing Sindhu into playing her shots with a heavy racquet, rampantly drawing errors through her tactics.
The Korean was quick to get off the blocks, racing away to a 5-1 lead. She was helped in no small measure by Sindhu who was trying to get in touch with the conditions.
For much of the first game, Sindhu made it look like she had been caught unawares in an open-roof arena where the wind wreaked havoc on her rhythm.
Young’s half-smashes came a tad faster than anticipated, not allowing Sindhu any room but forcing her to play close to her body. The shuttle would inevitably land wide of the tramlines.
A familiar mid-game resurgence saw Sindhu biting off her opponent’s lead, the score reading 7-8 before Young unleashed a flurry of shots to go into the mid-game interval leading 11-7.
Thereon, the game see-sawed, both players piling up points in an alternate fashion. Disappointingly for Sindhu though, she never could clamp down on her errors. On the other end, Young never let up on the attack. Her light-footed leaps to the net meant that Sindhu was repeatedly fending smashes which often came for her head.
When they didn’t, Young slotted her smashes down her opponent’s backhand. Twice they were winners. The one time that Sindhu did manage to return, Young rushed to the net and swatted the meek reply. Soon enough, she wrapped up the first game 21-14.
With both players switching sides for the second game and the drift now set to work against Young, Sindhu’s resurgence was all but expected. For the first point itself, Sindhu brought out her cross-court smash which sent Young lurching across but failing to return.
It was trademark Sindhu and there was all the more reason to expect the match to stretch to three games. Sindhu kept up the promise, pulling out her around-the-head smashes at will, and to good effect. She’d consign the Korean in one corner before she could find the leeway to send the thumping smash at her body, splitting her down the middle.
Sindhu stayed at an even keel and went into the mid-game interval with a slender one-point lead at 11-10. However, post that, it showed that the promise of a back-from-the-brink Sindhu was fleeting.
Young proved that her play is more than just the on-court conditions working in her favour. The drift was working against her but she adapted in a jiffy. What also showed was her deceptive wrist work, every time Sindhu would play a high-lift shot from the net.
Young played the full-length toss at the last possible second, her quick racquet speed carrying her through and unsettling her opponent.
Sindhu succumbed to that tiny bit of deception. Her tall frame would jerk just the crucial bit, leaving her pushing back uncomfortably in a bid to keep up the play.
This happened, most notably, when at 16-17, Sindhu having pushed the shuttle down her opponent’s backhand, advanced to the net expecting a weak return. However, Young snapped her racquet at the shuttle, skying it over and above Sindhu’s head.
While the Indian did manage to return, the rally had turned on its head and Young played a mean half-smash which strayed cross-court, leaving Sindhu on a sticky wicket.
Soon enough, An Se Young closed out the match 21-14, 21-17, setting up a blockbuster quarter-final against Carolina Marin.
Young's superior performance notwithstanding, Sindhu's recent losses form part of a larger recent trend of women's badminton. The memories of the World Championship triumph in Basel would have started fading away for Sindhu as the rigours of the BWF Tour leave little breathing space.
While the ignominy of another early exit from a tournament would sting for a while, the Indian can’t afford the luxury of mourning for too long as the French Open kicks off from 22 October.
In her defeat to Young, Sindhu failed to shake off the rustiness of the past fortnight when she was off tournament duty. The shots weren't being timed well, and the footwork was sluggish. While the signs in her defeat were sure worrying, one would be wise to not read much into them.
Sindhu’s troika of early-round exits are, above everything else, a product of the rigours of the tightly packed World Tour this season.
On the same day that Sindhu lost to An Se Young, Korea’s World No 10 Sung Ji Hyun limped off the court with a left foot tendon distortion under the toe, in her match against USA’s Beiwen Zhang. The score was 14-21, 21-17, 13-9 at the time.
Another player who’s racking up first-round exits is the World No 2 Akane Yamaguchi.
Since winning the Japan Open in July, Yamaguchi has failed to replug her imperious self.
At the ongoing Denmark Open, she lost in the first round, in straight games, against the unseeded Cheung Ngan Yi of Hong Kong. Tellingly, the World No 2 from Japan has now lost in the first round in her last three tour appearances.
Saina Nehwal’s woeful form is also of concern. The World No 8 lost in the first round against Japan’s Sayaka Takahashi, making it a hat-trick of first-round exits, after having bowed out of last month's China and Korea Open tournaments.
The player reaping the benefits of her contemporaries' struggles is the reigning Olympic gold medallist and last month's China Open winner Carolina Marin of Spain.
That reads like good riddance for after having stayed off the court for over eight months due to injury, Marin is steadily finding her feet and plotting her return to the upper echelons of the BWF rankings. In a lighter vein, the Asian oligarchy over women's badminton is withering away as Marin gets some titles in the bag for Europe.
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Updated Date: Nov 17, 2019 01:51:38 IST