On paper, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu is the weakest of the eight competitors vying for a spot in the women’s singles semi-finals of the Destination Dubai Super Series badminton grand finals. On current form, however, the Indian looks the most likely candidate to secure one of the two last-four berths from the tough Group ‘B’.
Going into the event, Sindhu had the fewest points among the eight, and just about squeezed into the elite list on the strength of strong performances in the final two Super Series events of the badminton calendar – the China and Hong Kong Opens. In the process, she relegated to the sidelines compatriot Saina Nehwal, who was returning to the circuit after reconstructive knee surgery.
So intensely competitive is the women’s circuit that there was no place in the top eight this time for Japan's Nozomi Okuhara, who had bagged the stellar honours last December by remaining unbeaten in the five matches she played at the Hamdan Stadium.
Sindhu, the lone Indian to qualify for the cash-rich event, had an initial stumble in her lung-opener against Japan’s strongly built Akane Yamaguchi, but recovered well to stamp her authority on the match in no uncertain terms. Outplayed 12-21 in the opening stanza, in which she simply failed to settle down, Sindhu comprehensively turned the tables on her doughty antagonist in the second, while playing against the drift in the vast playing arena.
Having pocketed the second game at 21-8 after an initial 7-7 deadlock, Sindhu rarely looked in trouble in the decider, using her height and reach to good advantage, to rain down smashes along the flanks, and drag her rival from side to side. Since she was in command of most of the rallies, the stocky Japanese got little chance to use the deceptive drops which had troubled the Indian no end in the opening game.
Tactically, too, Sindhu was the superior player. Even with her vastly improved fitness, the Olympic silver medallist was unwilling to engage in a stamina battle with Yamaguchi, touted as one of the fittest players on the circuit; and preferred to keep the rallies short. After the mid-game breather in the decider, she drew away steadily, to take the match at 21-15.
The Indian’s encounter against Yamaguchi was the only singles tie among both men and women, to go the full distance. All the other matches ended via the short route, with at least three of them producing results that caused the eyebrows to reach for the roof.
Basically, it was the season-ending gallop that Sindhu raised in those final two Super Series tournaments in the Far East, that stood her in good stead in her lung-opener in Dubai, even as some of her most powerful rivals lost steam. Spain’s world, European and Olympic champion Carolina Marin, who looked well-nigh invincible at the Rio Games in August, appeared a pale shadow of her dominant self as she surrendered to China’s Sun Yu by a 18-21, 22-24 margin.
There was evidence of the trademark fighting spirit as Marin, who looked down and out at 13-20 in the second game, fought back like a tiger, saving seven match-points in the process. Not only did she draw level, but she also inched ahead to 21-20.
But the Spaniard did not have the same speed of foot and mental resolve of Rio to convert the game-point into a second-game win. She eventually surrendered to the Chinese, who strategically did as much time-wasting as she possibly could, even taking a medical time-out, in an effort to break Marin’s rhythm. A yellow card was a small price to pay for the distinction of lowering the colours of the world champion.
The result is crucial for Sindhu’s chances of making the last four, for the top-ranked Marin is her strongest rival in the four-player group, and now appears to have her work cut out for her to grab one of the two semi-final berths from the pool. Sindhu could virtually seal a last-four spot if she were to slip it across Sun Yu, whom she meets on Thursday evening.
Even though the two rivals are locked 3-3 in their head-to-head meetings, the Indian holds a psychological edge over the Chinese player, having aced her at 21-11, 17-21, 21-11 in their most recent encounter — the China Open final. Sun Yu is notoriously low on staying power; and, in a long match, Sindhu can be counted on to let her superior stamina weigh in the balance.
If the gangling 21-year-old can knock out Sun Yu on Thursday evening, she would put herself in a fabulous position to reverse her Olympic final loss against Marin, who would be already smarting under the pain of defeat to the Chinese in her opening clash. The Spaniard leads 5-3 in their career head-to-heads, with those five wins having come in their last six meetings since June 2014.
Looking even further ahead, if Sindhu does power through to the semi-finals, it would be ideal if she were to top her group, and thereby avoid a last-four meeting with the talented Taiwanese Tai Tzu Ying, who appears to be in the form of her life at the moment. Tai, almost contemptuously, brushed aside China’s He Bingjiao 21-16, 21-13 in her opening round in Group ‘A’.
The other match in that group threw up yet another surprise as the 2013 world champion, Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand, was well beaten at 21-19, 21-12 by the pretty-looking South Korean Sung Ji Hyun. After two terrible seasons in 2014 and 2015, the strokeful Ratchanok appeared to be getting back to her best in the pre-Olympic build-up, but is fading yet again.
Sung, meanwhile, has the finest possible badminton pedigree, being the daughter of two former national stars, Sung Han Kook and Kim Yun Ja; and has consistently been a top-10 player for the past three years. Though it is premature to make such a prediction, the Korean looks the most likely to bag the second semi-final slot in the pool, behind Tai Tzu Ying.
Indian fans would be pleased to note that, were Sindhu to top Group ‘B’, and draw Sung as her semi-final opponent, the Indian is at the right end of a 6-3 career record against the Korean, having most recently beaten Sung in the semi-finals of the 2016 China Open, after saving four match-points in a heart-stopping joust.
Updated Date: Dec 15, 2016 16:19:14 IST