BWF World Tour Finals 2018: PV Sindhu blows away Nozomi Okuhara to finally shed the perennial runner-up tag
Even more than the triumph itself, Sindhu would have felt overwhelming relief at conquering the final frontier and, in the process, shedding the tag of perennial runner-up.
Finally, finally, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu rose to her full stature, made the topmost rung of the victory rostrum her own private preserve, and got the unpleasantly adherent monkey off her back.
Continuing to play the poised, mature brand of badminton that had seen her decimate the challenge of the world’s top two players at the round-robin group stage of the BWF World Tour finals, the lanky 23-year-old Indian gained sweet revenge on Sunday for her reverse in the final of the 2017 World Championships at the hands of Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara, with a marvellously crafted 21-19, 21-17 victory.
By the time the clock at Guangzhou’s Tianhe Gymnasium had ticked two minutes past the hour mark, Sindhu was able to let off a shrill scream of unbridled delight and sink to her knees in triumph at having added the scalp of the tournament’s second seed to those of Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying and Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi, who occupy the top two berths in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings.
Even more than the triumph itself, the Hyderabadi would have felt overwhelming relief at conquering the final frontier and, in the process, shedding the tag of perennial runner-up that she had picked up by virtue of ending second-best in her last seven tournament finals, including the 2016 Olympics, the 2017 World Championships, and this year’s Commonwealth Games and Asian Games.
Sindhu’s virtuoso effort lit up the arena on a day that saw outstanding performances from the underdogs in both the stellar singles events. World No 2 Shi Yuqi of China strung together a display resplendent with speedy movements and outstanding courtcraft, to mesmerise the off-colour top seed, Kento Momota of Japan, with a facile 21-12, 21-11 triumph in 49 minutes.
On a day when he looked a pale shadow of his normal self and was positively timid in his stroke production, Momota was completely outplayed, and repeatedly caught in a reactive frame of mind to the Chinese player’s controlled aggression. The left-handed Japanese, who had won the world title in Nanjing, looked bewildered at his own inability to raise a gallop, and lacked the answers to the reigning All-England champion’s consistent, deceptive attacking strokes.
Shi was, of course, the toast of his adoring home crowds, but it was Sindhu who won the admiration of the packed audience at the venue of the elite $1.5 million prize money event and millions of television viewers around the world for the manner in which she paid the Japanese player back in her own coin. This was a lean, mean machine at the peak of her physical abilities, moving around the court with elan, hitting strokes with power and holding her own in the lengthy, exhausting rallies.
The biggest asset of the two Japanese top-notchers, Okuhara and Yamaguchi, is their stamina — the ability to last the course of a long-drawn three-game affair, and play with as much speed and accuracy at the end as at the beginning of the contest. Sindhu negated this plus point by being as fit as they were; and went one-up by making optimal use of her height and reach. And, of course, her power.
The Indian did not fritter away her energy by using her smashes indiscriminately. Knowing that the slow conditions favoured the Japanese stonewaller, Sindhu was willing to wait patiently for a clear opening, and then ruthlessly drive home the advantage.
In addition, there was equanimity on her features for the greater part of the contest, unlike in the past when she would show her physical discomfort to her opponent by virtue of the furrowed brow and the heaving lungs. This new-found ability to hide her distress from her rival would presuppose that she has both worked on her fitness and received some psychological counselling that she could have done with, in the past.
Sindhu was in control of the lung-opener from the very start, when she grabbed a 5-1 lead and steadily extended it, to go into lemon-time with an 11-6 advantage. She was unfazed by the length of some of the rallies, and was easily able to either control them or stay with Okuhara, who did her best to probe the corners of the court and then draw her rival to the net.
The Japanese, however, did not possess a killer or point-winning stroke, like the overhead crosscourt smash and half-smash used by Yamaguchi to Sindhu’s backhand, or the body smash that Ratchanok Intanon had employed to such good effect in the enthralling second game against the Indian on Saturday. But there was loads of her acknowledged fighting spirit that enabled her to neutralise a huge 6-14 deficit, and catch up at 16-all.
It was touch-and-go as Sindhu went ahead briefly to 20-17, and then faced her familiar end-game blues as Okuhara crept up to 19-20. But once the first game was in the satchel, the Indian found her confidence hitting a new high.
Sindhu took handy 3-0 and 5-2 leads in the second game, and was never headed off except briefly when the Japanese caught up at 7-all. The Indian was always ahead by a point or two, and kept her cool at crucial junctures when Okuhara threatened an overtaking manoeuvre, to keep her antagonist at bay.
This crucial victory took Sindhu into a 7-6 lead in their 13-match rivalry, and broke a puzzling pattern of alternate victories in seven matches since the start of 2017. Sindhu, who had won their last meeting at the Nanjing World Championships in August this year by a similar scoreline (21-17, 21-19 at the Worlds, compared to 21-19, 21-17 in Guangzhou), and was due for a defeat, in accordance with the pattern, notched a win that should stand her in good stead in her quest to turn the Rio Olympics silver into a gold at Tokyo in 2020.
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