Dubai World Superseries Finals 2017: Plucky PV Sindhu loses another cliff-hanger, this time to Akane Yamaguchi
It was not without reason that the normally stoic countenance of Sindhu reflected the pain of the heartbreak she had been repeatedly suffering over the past 16 months.
Can it be said that the phrase “perennial bridesmaid”, used to describe PV Sindhu, is more reflective of accuracy than cruelty? How else does one reconcile with the fact that the Indian shuttler has been repeatedly stumbling on the threshold of glory, and settling for the silver medal that signifies being a runner-up?
In Sunday’s women’s singles title clash of the season-ending Dubai World Superseries Finals, the 22-year-old implacably pushed her long, lean body even beyond its limits, in much the same manner as she had done in August this year in the World Championships final against Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara.
Yet, when the dust settled on the green carpet laid out at the centre of the arena after 94 minutes of a titanic cliff-hanger against another diminutive Japanese, Akane Yamaguchi, the end-result was the same as it had been at the end of 110 minutes of an epic encounter at the Glasgow Emirates Arena — PV Sindhu had to be content with silver, despite coming within two points of capturing the yellow metal.
Allow me to recapitulate a few paragraphs of my description of that epic World Championships final of 27 August, if only for the fact that it could just as easily provide a perfect word-picture of the 17 December match that Yamaguchi won in Dubai by a 15-21, 21-12, 21-19 scoreline, compared to Okuhara’s 21-19, 20-22, 22-20 triumph in Glasgow:
Despite a somewhat deplorable lack of consistency, Sindhu has come on so much during the past 18 months following her return from an injury lay-off, that she has barreled into the finals of the two most prestigious events in the course of the past year — the Rio Olympics in August 2016, and the just-concluded Worlds in Glasgow.
Unhappily, the Hyderabad-based Pullela Gopichand Academy trainee has failed to cross that final barrier, even after putting her heart, soul, mind and body — or, as Winston Churchill would have put it, blood, toil, tears and sweat — into her efforts to capture the top prize. She was thwarted at Rio by Spanish world champion Carolina Marin, after a humdinger of a final; and now at Glasgow, by Okuhara, after an even more amazing instance of unstoppable force meeting immovable object.
It is hard for even the most diehard supporter of the sport to imagine the levels of physical and mental toughness that were required by the two antagonists to put together the performance they did on Sunday. The summit clash was the classic aggressor-versus-defender battle, pitting the attacking skills of the Indian against the obdurate defensive technique of the Japanese, while demanding the levels of physical fitness that athletes very rarely achieve during their lifetimes.
“Sheer staying power, and the ability to play the entirety of the match with sustained speed – these will be the key elements that will decide whether the BWF World Badminton Championships’ women’s singles gold medal, that has been in Spain’s possession since 2014, moves to India or Japan.” This is what I had written yesterday (a day ahead of the World Championships final), in my preview of the final. And that is exactly what happened.
So hard was it to separate the two players that they seemed tied to each other by a common umbilicus, as they went about responding to their rival’s probing strokes to every corner of the court in an almost robotic manner, till one of them erred out of sheer exhaustion, rather than gained the point through a clean winner.
Substitute the name of Okuhara with that of Yamaguchi above, and switch the name of the tournament from the BWF World Championships to the Dubai World Superseries Finals — and there you have an almost exact description of Sunday’s women’s singles final, just as it happened at the Sheikh Hamdan Indoor Stadium, which is quite amazingly a temporary, dismantlable playing arena built on top of an indoor, Olympic-size swimming-pool!
With the benefit of hindsight allied with foresight, Sindhu had very rightly predicted on Saturday night that Sunday’s final would be a long, tough haul, and would witness a different Yamaguchi from the one that had capitulated so meekly to the Indian in their final group match.
Sindhu knew that the 20-year-old Japanese powerhouse had played well within herself on Friday, and saved her energy for the projected tough semi-final against Ratchanok Intanon (which she won with a 21-19 score in the decider, after being 14-18 down at one point) and the equally difficult title round.
The final was replete with excruciatingly long rallies, in which the pint-sized Fukui native exhibited iron control over the length of her tosses and clears, with the help of which she kept the rallies going and completely wrapped a muffler around Sindhu’s much-wonted power. For most of the match, the rangy Indian was chasing the shuttle, and unable to get into the right position to unleash her famed smash. And on the few occasions that she did hit the smash, Yamaguchi blocked it with obdurate defence.
The one time that the Japanese looked shaky was in the first game, when she got badly stuck while leading 8-5, and conceded eight points in a row to 8-13, from a combination of unforced errors and some penetrative Sindhu strokes. The Indian was dragged back to 14-13, but then struck a purple patch to touch 20-13 before closing out the opening game.
When the Olympic silver medallist broke out into a handy 5-0 lead in the second, the “Let’s go, Sindhu, let’s go!” chant from the sizeable Indian contingent in the capacity crowd rose to a crescendo, as it sensed a straight-games victory. Sadly, the Indian supporters were too sanguine. From 5-8 down, Yamaguchi began piling on the pressure and extending the rallies, to move inexorably to 10-8 and then 13-11, before accelerating away to win eight of the next nine points, and restore parity.
The third game aped the second at the start, when Sindhu took a 4-0 lead, but the advantage did not last long. Yamaguchi caught up at 5-all; and from that point onwards, the tussle became something of a pitched battle, with several rallies extending beyond the 30-stroke mark, and some even touching 60 strokes. Neither player was willing to concede an inch, just as neither could grab the match by the scruff of the neck, and sprint away to the tape.
Sindhu held a slim advantage at 13-11, but the Japanese girl caught up at 13-all; and thereafter, the two proceeded to subject each other to the kind of third-degree that could be named Japanese Torture, if only because both Okuhara and Yamaguchi have subjected the hapless Sindhu to it! The capacity crowd at the stadium, as also the millions watching the match worldwide on television, must have wondered how the human body could take such treatment, and not collapse.
At the end of almost every rally from that point on, both players appeared to be in distress. After one such interminable rally at 17-18, a desperately diving Yamaguchi ended up winded, flat on her back near the net, taking her own time to get up, dust herself off and resume the battle, even as Sindhu could be seen bent over at the waist, trying to whoop the air back into her starving lungs.
As the shuttle war raged towards its conclusion, it became apparent that neither player was willing to concede an inch, and that the gold medal would go to the woman who desired it more. The stocky Japanese still possessed the energy to suddenly play a couple of points at a blinding pace, using the smash she had kept under wraps for the greater part of the match. But the Indian, despite looking as if she would collapse at any moment, refused to throw in the towel, and produced some amazing reflex returns to claw back to deuce on three occasions.
At 19-all, it was anyone’s match. While the crowd held its collective breath, coach Pullela Gopichand gave some urgent final instructions in Telugu from the courtside, could be clearly heard. And then, in what was the ultimate anti-climax, an unexpected letdown, Sindhu’s nerve cracked. She made two totally unforced errors to concede the match on a soft note, and was once again forced to don the role of the bridesmaid, while the beaming Japanese bride held centrestage.
Later, speaking through the services of an interpreter, Yamaguchi acknowledged that this match had been the high point of her career: “This is the biggest moment for me. I am so happy that I recovered from my defeat to her in the group match. That it was such a challenging match, and to win through that, is an incredible achievement. There were long rallies, but I was leading at the end, and that gave me confidence. I knew she was getting slower at the end, but I also knew she had enough energy to move quickly, so I tried to keep my concentration.”
For Sindhu, it was yet another reverse; yet another time that the door had been slammed in her face even after she had got her foot planted firmly in the door. No doubt the four major instances of these gut-wrenching disappointments in the course of the past 16 months must have flashed before her eyes:
2016 Rio Olympic final: Lost to Spain’s Carolina Marin at 21-19, 12-21, 15-21
2017 World Championship final: Lost to Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara at 19-21, 22-20, 20-22
2017 Indian Nationals final: Lost to Saina Nehwal at 17-21, 25-27
2017 Dubai World Superseries final: Lost to Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi at 21-15, 12-21, 19-21
It was not without reason that the normally stoic countenance of the lanky Hyderabadi reflected the pain of the heartbreak she had been repeatedly suffering over the past 16 months. The large, lustrous eyes were bright with unshed tears, and the words emerged in disorderly, staccato bursts: “Of course, it’s really hard. The same thing happened in the World Championships. But I have to let it go; I can’t keep thinking about it. It was a good week overall. I’d like to congratulate her. It happens.”
The soft-spoken Indian ace was not known for her aggression till five years back and it was chief national coach Pullela Gopichand, who had transformed her into an aggressive player ahead of the Rio Games.
The world number seven Indian will next play Hong Kong's world number 34 Cheung Ngan Yi in the group stage.
Firstpost.com takes a quick look at badminton star PV Sindhu's performances over the past two years, and charts her journey towards securing Olympic qualification.