It was nothing less than a commanding performance that Pusarla Venkata Sindhu put up at Dubai’s Hamdan Sports Complex on Friday evening — a display that set the 21-year-old Indian up as the most dangerous candidate for the top honours in badminton’s richest tournament, the year-ending Superseries grand finals.
Faced with the prospect of being shown the door in the event of a loss in her third and final Group ‘B’ encounter against reigning world, European and Olympic champion Carolina Marin, the lanky Hyderabadi shuttler demolished the challenge put up by the left-handed Spaniard in a mere 47 minutes by a 21-17, 21-13 scoreline.
With China’s No 3 seed, Sun Yu, having paved the way earlier for Sindhu to perform her heroics, with a hard-earned 15-21, 21-10, 21-10 victory over Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi, the Indian was able to play with a clear mind and a sense of purpose. The Japanese, incidentally, had come into the tournament as the No 2 seed after amassing the largest number of circuit points behind Taiwan’s top-seeded Tai Tzu Ying.
Let's just say, Sindhu was done a huge favour by Sun Yu, who opted to maintain her winning momentum rather than putting in a tepid or conservative performance in her final group match, in order to save her energies for the semi-finals.
Sindhu’s triumph, which provided her with a measure of revenge for her reverse at Marin’s hands in the Rio Olympics summit clash, needs to be put in perspective before details of the battle are set down here. Put simply and starkly, the fact is that Sindhu would have been out of the tournament, even if she had thrashed Marin as she did, if Sun Yu had not given her the 'Kiss of Life' by beating Yamaguchi earlier.
Of the four possible scenarios that had unfolded on the eve of the final round-robin group clashes, after each of the four players in the pool had played two matches, three outcomes had been distinctly unfavourable for Sindhu, and would have probably seen her exit the tournament.
The only combination of results that could have worked in the Indian’s favour had been outlined on Friday in a preview of the final group matches:
Best Case Scenario: If Sindhu beats Marin, and Sun Yu knocks out Yamaguchi, the Indian will get into the semi-final without the need to pull out a calculator. She will end up second in the group with two victories and a defeat behind the Chinese player’s three wins. Yamaguchi will exit the tournament after a third spot in the group with a solitary win and two defeats, while winless Marin would have ended up with the wooden spoon.
For the Indian badminton fan, the ultimate horror would have unfolded had Sun Yu somehow contrived to lose to Akane Yamaguchi, even in three games, as had been outlined in the preview, as follows:
Scenario 2: If Sindhu beats Marin, and Yamaguchi beats Sun Yu, three players will end up with two wins each at the top of the group, while Marin goes out of the tournament. There will then be a countback of games won against games lost; and in the event of a tie in that department, the vote will go to the player who has won more games. And here, the Japanese player’s position is superior to that of Sindhu.
Sun Yu could not be touched, since, in the worst-case scenario of a straight-games defeat for her at Yamaguchi’s hands, she would have had a +2 net score (four games won, two games lost), which was at least equal to the best score that the Japanese could have put up.
Had Yamaguchi won in straight games, she would immediately have moved out of Sindhu’s reach with a +2 net score (five won, three lost). Had the diminutive Japanese won in three games, her net score would have been +1 (five won, four lost), as against Sindhu’s identical +1 score (four won, three lost), in the event of a straight-games triumph over Marin.
However, the rules dictated that, since the Japanese player had won five games against Sindhu’s four, Yamaguchi would have made the grade. Had Sindhu won over the full distance against Marin, her net score would have been zero (four won, four lost), thus even more inferior to either of the two possible Yamaguchi results.
In short, therefore, had Yamaguchi managed to win against Sun Yu any which way, Sindhu would have been eliminated, even if she had ousted the woman who had deprived her of the gold medal at the Rio Games. How heart-breaking would that have been!
The advantage of knowing the favourable result before-hand was evident in Sindhu’s demeanour, as she took the court against Marin with an air of aggressive confidence. She was aware that the Olympic champion had already been eliminated by the earlier result, and could now only play the role of spoiling the Indian’s chances.
It may have crossed Sindhu’s mind that her compatriot Saina Nehwal had stumbled at the final hurdle in the 2015 grand finals as a result of a group stage loss to Taiwan’s Tai Tzu Ying. The Taiwanese had already been eliminated as a result of two earlier losses, but ruined Saina’s qualification chances by defeating her.
If Sindhu indeed was aware of this incident, she gave no sign of knowing it.
There was no trace of the starting jitters that Sindhu had displayed in both her earlier group matches, as she stayed with the two-time world champion till 3-all in the initial skirmishes, and then reeled the Spaniard in from 3-7 with a five-point burst to 8-7. With some brilliant lunging saves off Marin’s best cross-court smashes, Sindhu went into the lemon break with her nose marginally ahead at 11-10.
The sizeable expatriate expatriate Indian contingent in the audience had noticed that Sindhu was moving extremely well on the court, and dictating several of the rallies, even as Marin was half-a-step slower than she had been in the Olympic final, thanks no doubt to the leg injury she had suffered in the aftermath of the Games. They egged their compatriot on, wildly cheering every point she earned.
Marin just could not get the rhythm she wanted; and her trademark screams of celebration were few and far between. The Spaniard could not pounce on the relatively weak return as she would have liked, as Sindhu intelligently and judiciously used the attacking clear to keep her opponent off-balance. It was a measure of her steadiness and dominance that, at 16-12, the Indian had bagged eight of the previous ten points.
The Indian had a gilt-edged opportunity of closing out the game at 20-14, but suffered a brief attack of nerves to allow her rival to narrow the deficit to 17-20. But Sindhu would not be denied, and pocketed the 22-minute game at 21-17.
Marin emerged like a veritable tornado after the change of ends, playing at a blistering pace to unsettle Sindhu. But the doughty Indian weathered the storm, and the 23-year-old world champion was unable to sustain the blinding pace. Sindhu kept her nose ahead, and built her 7-4 lead into a 11-6 cushion at the mid-game interval.
The writing was on the wall for Marin; and, considering the fact that she would not get a chance to play on the morrow, no matter how well she played on Friday, she began lapsing into errors. Sindhu turned the screw ever tighter, moving to 13-6 and then 15-9, before hitting a wild smash into the tramlines. Marin returned the compliment a couple of points later, showing that her own nerves had frayed to breaking point.
At 17-10, it was all over bar the shouting. Nevertheless, a calm but smiling Pullela Gopichand, sitting in the coach’s chair on the sidelines, kept making calming gestures at his hyper-excited ward as she proceeded determinedly to 18-11 and 20-12 before putting the Spaniard out of her misery.
With the tournament organisers resorting to a draw of lots to determine the semi-finalists, a step taken to prevent 'fixing' of positions in the round-robin groups, Sindhu was drawn to meet Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun, who eventually topped Group ‘A’ with a clean 3-0 record.
Sung had little difficulty in lowering the colours of a seemingly disinterested Tai Tzu Ying, who appeared to be saving herself for the semi-finals, after both players had qualified by the second day itself, at the expense of Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon and China’s He Bingjiao. The top-seeded Taiwanese ace has been given the task of facing the undefeated Chinese, Sun Yu, for a place in Sunday’s final.
Updated Date: Dec 17, 2016 14:54:06 IST