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China Open Superseries Premier: PV Sindhu's shock loss raises questions over decision to participate in tournament

Put in simple, dispassionate terms, Chinese qualifier Gao Fangjie beat India’s second seed and defending champion, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, by a 21-11, 21-10 scoreline in a mere 37 minutes of quarter-final action on Friday at the US$700,000 China Open Superseries Premier badminton championships in Fuzhou.

One has to blink hard and re-focus one’s eyes to absorb the full impact of the result and the scores. On a day when two former world champions, Spain’s Carolina Marin and Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon, showed true champion-like qualities to come back from the brink of the abyss and score identical edge-of-the-seat 22-20 third-game victories over China’s He Bingjiao and top-seeded Taiwanese Tai Tzu Ying respectively, the Gao-Sindhu duel turned out to be a drab, one-sided contest — if one could even refer to it as a contest.

File image of PV Sindhu. AP

File image of PV Sindhu. AP

It is, of course, conceivable that the 19-year-old Chinese talent, ranked 89th on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) ramkings, might slip it across the 22-year-old World No 2, who has been rather less than consistent of late, and might well have been intimidated by the full-throated support of the home crowd for their youthful player.

However, those scores, indicative of a total rout and a marked absence of fight by Sindhu, will not slide down an Indian’s throat easily. It was at the same tournament, a year ago, that the lanky Hyderabadi had withstood similar crowd hostility and parried everything that the host nation’s Sun Yu had hurled at her, to emerge a third Indian winner of the prestigious Superseries Premier title, after Kidambi Srikanth and Saina Nehwal did it in tandem in 2014.

The fact of the matter is that Sindhu was simply not in the match at any stage, except the first half of the opening game when she trailed her rival 8-11 at lemon-time, and then reduced the margin to 10-11. From that point on, the Indian won exactly two of the next 19 points, as Gao powered to the first game, and streaked to a 7-1 lead in the second — an advantage she never relinquished.

How was the player who missed the 2017 World Championship title in Glasgow by a mere two points and was only closely beaten in the Rio Olympic final lose with such ease?

The answer lies in the relative speed of feet of the two antagonists. Sindhu was a half-step slower than she normally is, while Gao rode an adrenaline rush in the face of passionate crowd support to be a half-step faster than her usual footwork would have allowed her to be. The combination of Sindhu’s slowness and Gao’s extra speed had the Indian constantly at the receiving end, visibly struggling to remain in every rally.

The Chinese teenager unfurled an excellent crosscourt drop from both flanks, and was especially deadly with the overhead. She had done her homework, and saved in her memory banks the fact that the Indian ace struggles to get back the fast overhead crosscourt drop to her backhand net corner.

The split-second of extra time that Sindhu needed to clear the shuttle, and the extra step she had to take to return to the court’s centre, had the twinkle-toed Gao firmly in the driver’s seat in that rally, invariably finishing it with a crosscourt half-smash to Sindhu’s forehand. Indeed, Gao cleverly used the crisscross pattern of shot-making, forcing her rival to one corner of the net, and sending her scurrying back to the diagonally opposite baseline corner with a flat, accurate clear.

Nor did the marked drift in the Haixia Olympic Sports Centre hall hold any terrors for the Chinese girl, as she used the high, deep serve throughout the match to send her opponent back to the baseline at the start of every rally. Clearly, Sindhu has become far more used to receiving the low short serve that most of the players on the world circuit employ; and her attempts to smash the vertically dropping shuttle either ended up in the net, or are comfortably returned by Gao with dividends attached.

The Indian did not help her own cause by committing a number of unforced errors. She repeatedly erred with the length of her strokes, and dumped several drops and smashes in the net. It is hard to remember a single net duel in which she bettered Gao in the course of the 37 minutes that the quarter-final lasted. No amount of advice from courtside coach Madhumita Bisht, a ten-time former singles national champion, could dispel the mental fog she seemed to be in.

The long and short of the matter is that Sindhu was both physically and mentally drained. It was not this particular match that caused the exhaustion; it was a breakdown of mind and body after four weeks of continuous action (at the Denmark Open, the French Open, the 82nd Indian Nationals and the China Open).

It is difficult to reconcile this shocking loss and especially the gameplan devised by those in charge of Sindhu’s badminton fortunes? Could national coach Pullela Gopichand not see the weariness and fatigue that oozed from his ward’s every pore? Could he not see the automaton-like movements in which she moved around the court against a player she would have hacked down nine times out of ten, if her mind had been clear and her body had not been hurting?

So there were compulsions. Points to be defended at both the China Open, which she had won last year, and the Hong Kong Open, where she had been a losing finalist. If these points were not defended, and she sat out these tournaments, she would be in danger of losing her World No 2 ranking, with Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun and Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi snapping at her heels.

Is that ranking so supremely important? Is it absolutely essential for Sindhu to cling on to the No 2 spot?

If one considers the strategy of entering her in tournaments with an eye on the cash-rich Superseries grand finals in mid-December, that argument fails to hold water. Only the top eight players or pairs in the BWF standings in each of the five events qualify for the year-ending finals in Dubai, and Sindhu has a sufficiently large points cushion to be guaranteed a berth in the competition.

There is a crying need to get the priorities right if a towering talent like Sindhu is not to burn out too early, either through injury or staleness. We have seen what happened to world champion Okuhara, who also tried playing a punishing schedule. She had to withdraw from her home tournament, the Japan Open, a day after beating Sindhu; and in Fuzhou, she played only one point before shaking hands as a token of surrender to her rival, who coincidentally happened to be Chinese qualifier Gao Fangjie.

It would make eminent sense if PV Sindhu were to be withdrawn from the Hong Kong Open next week, and allowed some rest and recreation before the lucrative Destination Dubai grand finals in mid-December.

Updated Date: Nov 18, 2017 10:20 AM

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