Rising to her full stature as a badminton player who is being hailed as a future world champion, India’s PV Sindhu put in a mature, determined performance in Guangzhou on Wednesday, to torpedo the ambitions of Japan’s No 2 seed and defending champion, Akane Yamaguchi, in her opening women’s singles Group A encounter of the $1.5 million prize money World Tour badminton finals.
Having to play on a slow court in chilly conditions that were distinctly inimical to her aggressive power game, the sixth-seeded Indian adapted her strategy brilliantly, to defeat the Japanese stonewaller at her own attritional game, and notch an impressive 52-minute 24-22, 21-15 triumph in the first of the three pool ties she needs to get under her belt at the round-robin group stage.
However, Sindhu’s compatriot, Sameer Verma, the only other Indian shuttler at the season-ending finals, looked completely out of his depth in his opening men’s singles Group B clash against reigning world champion and top seed, Kento Momota; and was handed a comprehensive 18-21, 6-21 thrashing in a mere 35 minutes by the ominously in-form Japanese left-hander.
Sindhu can justifiably pat herself on the back for her opening-day’s showing against the pint-sized but immensely strong Yamaguchi, who had won last year’s Superseries grand finals in Dubai.
The cold, slow, heavy playing conditions – in which the low humidity levels induced very little perspiration, but left the protagonists short of breath after every long rally – were totally in favour of the 21 year old Japanese, whose forte it is to engage her opponent in interminable rallies, and let her own stamina weigh in the balance.
Indeed, even a shuttle hit with full power from one baseline to the other against the gentle drift in the Tiansu Gymnasium would land well inside the opposite baseline. Early in the match, Sindhu was guilty of making several misjudgments of such deep crosscourt tosses, that would land several inches inside the court at her baseline. Wisely, she stopped judging such shots in the second game, and returned them all.
The Indian started with the psychological advantage of carrying a 9-4 winning record against Yamaguchi, including victories in their most recent three duels. But she realised very early in the match that her own smash would not gain her the kind of rewards she would have reaped on a fast-paced court and with fast shuttles; and so, she revealed a phlegmatic, patient side to her on-court character that has rarely been seen in her past record.
At one stage in the second game, Yamaguchi appeared positively puzzled that her rival was willing to stay with her in the exhausting tossing duels. It was as if Sindhu was understudying a police dog that has caught a suspect by the ankle, and is simply not willing to let go!
If there was one weakness that the 23-year-old Indian demonstrated in the opening game, and which allowed the title-holder to grab a handy 11-6 advantage, it was her defence on the backhand side. Yamaguchi kept hitting the overhead crosscourt smash and half-smash to Sindhu’s backhand sideline, and took what seemed to be a potentially game-winning 18-13 lead.
One can identify this as the exact point at which the match turned. Fighting for all she was worth, but still exercising monumental patience, Sindhu forced the Japanese into errors, to neutralise at 19-all, and hold game-point at 20-19. A low serve that landed a couple of inches shy of the short-service line must have piled the pressure on Sindhu’s notoriously fragile nerves, but she stayed resolute to bag the nerve-jangling opener after saving two game-points in the extra-points duel.
There was little to separate the two warriors until the lemon break in the second stanza, which was taken with Yamaguchi leading by a solitary point. When they returned to the court after the breather, Sindhu reeled off eight points without answer to power to 18-11, and virtually seal the deal from the demoralised Japanese.
The Indian’s winning ploy was to attack Yamaguchi on the deep backhand with repeat tosses, and keep her off-balance. Although the second seed did manage to return most of these tosses with overhead shots, she was just that wee bit slow on the recovery (no doubt due to the build-up of lactic acid in the legs, in the closing reaches of the exhausting clash), to prevent Sindhu from executing the flat crosscourt drive to the deep forehand corner, out of Yamaguchi’s reach.
With one tough match firmly in the satchel, Sindhu will run on the morrow into top-seeded Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei. The 24 year old Taiwanese ace, who has now spent 103 weeks in the pre-eminent slot of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, was not unduly stretched while cantering to a 21-15, 21-17 triumph against American Beiwen Zhang, the fourth player in Group A.
Sindhu must find a way to stop the inexorable march of the strokeful, deceptive Tai, who has won 10 of their 13 career meetings, including the last six in an unbroken reel. Perhaps it might be a good idea to watch a recording of their 2016 Rio Olympics encounter, which Sindhu had won in two facile games at 21-13, 21-15. Or perhaps, she could examine what Yamaguchi did against the Taiwanese en route to the crown at the season-ending finals in Dubai last year.
Meanwhile, Sameer Verma, who had beaten Momota in straight games in the Swiss Open in February this year, found his redoubtable opponent to be a totally different kettle of fish on Wednesday. So superior did the Japanese ace appear in this battle of two 24 year olds, that he was up 12-4 and 16-8 in a trice, and then was content to play at Verma’s relatively gentle pace.
Momota even allowed his antagonist to reduce a 14-20 gap to a two-point deficit before suddenly flooring the gas pedal and finishing off the game with a steep crosscourt smash and a follow-up kill to Verma’s midriff. And once he had fully familiarised himself with the slow, heavy conditions, the World No 1 decided to test his own footspeed and aggression in the second stanza, and simply blew the hapless 24 year old Indian away.
It became a no-contest as Momota won points galore with his overhead smash to Verma’s backhand sideline and dazzling follow-up to the net to put away the weak return. A storming 11-2 advantage for the world champion at the breather was sufficient for the spectators to realise that the southpaw was hell-bent on showing the Indian who was the boss of the shuttle.
In order to stay in contention for a berth in the semi-finals, Verma will now have to win both his remaining Group B matches – against Indonesia’s Tommy Sugiarto, with whom he clashes on Thursday; and Thailand’s Kantaphon Wangcharoen, with whom he will cross swords on Friday.
The 30 year old Tommy, son of the 1983 world champion Icuk Sugiarto, showed his defensive skills and excellent fitness levels by outlasting Wangcharoen by a 21-18, 18-21, 21-11 scoreline, in the day’s longest match, which dragged on for a minute under the hour-and-a-half mark, and left the young Thai looking totally drained.
Verma would be viewing his clash with Sugiarto with some trepidation, for although he is locked 1-1 in career head-to-heads with the Indonesian, he suffered a bad loss in their last meeting. The Indian won their first duel in three close games at the India Open in February this year, but lost abjectly to Sugiarto by a 13-21, 5-21 margin in the Malaysia Open in June.
Among key results in the other singles pools, Thailand’s 2013 world champion Ratchanok Intanon outsmarted the upcoming Chinese Chen Yufei by a 21-18, 20-22, 21-17 scoreline in a wonderfully entertaining 78-minute Group B encounter, while Japan’s 2017 world champion Nozomi Okuhara pipped Canadian Michelle Li at 21-18, 23-21, proving just a wee bit stronger in the points that mattered.
In Group A of the men’s singles, China’s Shi Yuqi beat South Korea’s Son Wan Ho at 16-21, 21-19, 21-8 in a 65-minute encounter. Chinese Taipei’s Chou Tien Chen and Indonesia’s Anthony Sinisuka Ginting were still to play at the time of filing this report.
Thursday's matches will begin at 11 am China time (8:30 am, India time) with the Verma-Sugiarto clash. Sindhu’s match against Tai Tzu Ying will be the first of the afternoon session, starting at 3:30 pm, India time.
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Updated Date: Dec 12, 2018 20:37:17 IST