The titanic match between PV Sindhu and Nozomi Okuhara at the 2017 World Championships in Glasgow is still fresh in every Indian sports fanatic's memory. For 110 minutes, the badminton world stood still. The 73-shot rally was the start of this rivalry. From 11-11, 15-15, 18-18, there was hardly anything to separate the two. In the end, Sindhu's nervy forehand net tap gave Okuhara the gold medal.
Sindhu had her revenge in Korea a month later with a 56-shot rally being the highlight of another marathon match. Soon after, the duo went back and forth with wins and losses against each other on the circuit. None of the matches have been dull, to say the least. Such is the allure of the matches between Sindhu and Okuhara that it brings the best out of both. The lanky Hyderabad-born shuttler leads 8-7 in the overall head-to-head meetings against the Japanese. In fact, Sindhu has won three of her last four matches against Okuhara, with her lone loss coming at the Singapore Open earlier this year.
Both shuttlers will be back on the court against each other for Season 2 of the battle of attrition at the Worlds. Both players are Olympic-medal winners, former World No 2s and are just 24. It can all be very nervy for both the players, but they have been here before.
Still, Sindhu could feel deja vu as she enters the arena on Sunday. Much like 2017, Sindhu is the favourite to bring home gold. En route the final, she had trounced Chen Yufei in the semi-finals back then too.
For Okuhara, she had to take down another warrior in Saina Nehwal in the semi-finals, coming from a game down to win 12-21, 21-17, 21-10. In Basel this time, the Japanese scripted another stunning comeback win 17-21, 21-18, 21-15 against 2013 champion Ratchanok Intanon to set up the finale with Sindhu.
But, between the Glasgow showdown and the title clash in Basel, a lot has been changed for both Sindhu and Okuhara. A year later, Sindhu bagged another silver at the 2018 Worlds, became the first Indian to win the season-ending BWF World Tour Finals tournament in Guangzhou, won a silver at the 2018 Asian Games and finished runner-up at three Superseries events, while Okuhara has managed to finish runner-up at six Superseries events.
Interestingly, 2019 has also been a mixed year for both the shuttlers, with no major title to show for. Okuhara featured in the finals of Japan Open, Australian Open, and Singapore Open this year compared to Sindhu’s solitary final appearance at Indonesia Open. The Indian has had a slow start to the season and has taken time to adapt to freshly-inducted coach Kim Ji Hyun. However, the tweaks in Sindhu's style of play are evident. Her explosiveness and control from the corners make her more of a complete player. She has even improved her decision-making closer to the net.
Okuhara, meanwhile, has had multiple surgeries and niggles that kept her away from the court for the major part of 2018. In the meantime, a similar robust shuttler in Akane Yamaguchi took over and ticked all the boxes to attain the No 1 spot in the rankings. Despite not winning tournaments, the pint-sized warrior looks hungry for a breakthrough. Okuhara hadn't dropped a single game in Basel before the semi-finals, scalping players like former World No 2 Sung Ji Hyun and China’s He Bing Jao with relative ease. She's looked like her old self this year but has floundered at the final hurdle. Saturday's 80-minute tussle with Intanon didn't bother her much as she still seemed energetic and ready for more.
On the other hand, it is important to note that she has played with freedom and with exceptional work-rate in Basel. This on-court rampage makes her a dangerous contender. However, Okuhara can defend whatever Sindhu throws at her. She will make fans bite their nails. This is where the Indian must use her range to slow down and focus on the last few points that eluded her in Glasgow. What sets Okuhara apart is the quick transition and the tweaks in her gameplan when the tough gets going. Just when you think her opponent is playing a fast-paced game, Okuhara takes the pace off the rally and drains her opponent.
Sindhu has learned to pull herself out of the trouble, but she will need a Plan B in crucial situations to combat Okuhara's zen-like patience. After the semi-final win, Sindhu said she was well-prepared against the skillful Chen Yufei despite a few errors at the net. “It’s very important to keep yourself focussed because it’s not yet over for me. I’m happy but I’m not satisfied yet. There is one more match to go. I definitely want to get the gold for sure. But it’s not going to be easy. I have to focus very much and be very much patient. And give my best in the final.
“It’s going to be a bit different. I will give my 100 percent. The rest I don’t know. That should be fine. There’s not much of strategy, because we know each other’s game, we play each other all the time. It’s just that on the court, every point matters," she had said of Okuhara.
From 2017 to now, Okuhara's style lies in her incredible retrieving and stoic defence. For Sindhu, it has been her ability to avoid panic and her aggressive intent. The two finalists have a point to prove in the final in Basel. It will be the first title of 2019 and the biggest one.
Updated Date: Aug 25, 2019 15:20:29 IST