If sport were to strictly follow the pattern scripted for it by the armchair critic, there would be none of the glorious uncertainties that are associated with all competitive sporting activities.
On paper, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu had been strongly favoured to beat Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun, and progress serenely to the women’s singles final of the year-ending BWF Superseries grand finals. But the events that unfolded at the Hamdan Sports Complex on Saturday evening did not conform to the script; and it was the 25-year-old Korean who eked out a 21-15, 18-21, 21-15 victory in a high-quality semi-final that lasted 76 vastly entertaining minutes.
Sung’s rival in Sunday’s final will be the strokeful Chinese Taipei player Tai Tzu Ying, who knocked Spaniard Carolina Marin off the world No 1 perch three weeks ago, and came in the tournament as its top seed. Tai played with her usual trademark flair, and employed her full repertoire of deceptive strokes to best effect to knock out China’s Sun Yu at 21-19, 21-19 in 48 minutes in Saturday’s morning session.
Sunday’s final will be the third meeting in Dubai between Tai and Sung. The two had first faced off against each other in the 2014 final, when the then teenaged Taiwanese had scored a runaway 21-17, 21-12 victory over the Korean. Tai and Sung had clashed again in the final Group ‘A’ encounter in this year’s grand finals; and Sung had won in straight games at 21-15, 21-17, to level their career head-to-heads at 9-9 after 18 meetings.
Returning to Saturday’s second semi-final of badminton’s richest tournament, Sung held an edge over her 21-year-old Indian antagonist on the strength of the seedings alone, having been placed at No 4 to Sindhu’s eighth spot.
Sindhu, with a world ranking of 10, had squeaked into the elite eight at the last minute on the strength of her brilliant performances in the final two Superseries events of 2016 – the China Open and Hong Kong Open.
Nevertheless, on current form, the Hyderabadi appeared to have the edge, carrying a 6-3 career head-to-head lead over Sung, and having beaten the Korean in three of the last four occasions when they crossed swords. Sindhu also appeared to have the momentum, going into the semi-final, as she had convincingly beaten the world and Olympic champion Marin on just the previous day, gaining sweet revenge for her reverse at the hands of the Spaniard in the Rio Olympics final.
But then, Sung’s recent form had also been outstanding. She had barged into the semi-final after an unbeaten run at the group stage, notching up victories over the No 1 seed, Tai Tzu Ying, the 2013 world champion Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand and the exciting left-handed Chinese youngster, He Bingjiao.
Of course, it did appear as if Tai had not gone all out in their final group encounter against Sung, as both players had already qualified for the last four stage, and it made sense to save her energies for the knock-out rounds at the business end of the competition. On the other hand, Sindhu had had to strain every nerve and sinew to lower the colours of Marin, who would have been keen to prove that her gold medal winning run at Rio had been no fluke.
It was Sindhu’s coach, former All England champion Pullela Gopichand who had put the Sindhu-Sung semi-final in proper perspective when he had said before the match, “It promises to be a really tough match, since Sung is an accurate length player who uses all four corners of the court, and has no visible weaknesses in her game.”
It had been widely acknowledged that Sung was talented, swift on her feet, had a full arsenal of strokes, a tidy defence, better than adequate net play, and fitness to rival that of her semi-final opponent. For almost the entire duration of the semi-final, it was the Korean who dictated the pace and trend of the rallies, forcing Sindhu to play catch-up, and reducing her to a reactive role.
The Seoul native also showed during the match that she had improved her defence even further in recent times, as she returned a high percentage of Sindhu’s most powerful smashes with elan, giving her rival little chance of finishing the rally with a quick follow-up to the net behind the smash.
In the initial skirmishes, there were no traces of the starting trouble that Sindhu had revealed in her three group matches, as she kept pace with Sung till 4-4. Both players used the deep, high serve in an effort to keep the other away from the net. However, the errors started to creep into Sindhu’s game, allowing the Korean to open up an 8-5 lead, and go into the mid-game interval with a 11-9 advantage.
Sung’s accuracy of stroke, and ability to guide the shuttle to all corners of the court, was very much in evidence as she ran Sindhu ragged in the fast-paced rallies. From the back of the court, she would use an acutely-angled drop, and follow up efficiently to the net to push the bird into Sindhu’s body, one of the Indian’s weaknesses.
Yet, Sindhu used powerful cross-court smashes at unexpected angles, to reel Sung in, until a solitary point separated the rivals at 15-14. It was here that the disadvantage of having to play with the drift in the vast stadium worked against Sindhu, inducing her to push the shuttle out at the baseline thrice in succession. In a trice, Sung had the 22-minute opening game in her pocket at 21-15.
A lengthy opening rally in the second game was the precursor of things to come. Sindhu, now playing against the drift, was able to keep the bird aloft and deep without fear of its floating out at the baseline. No more than a point separated the two antagonists until 7-6, when Sindhu went ahead briefly to 9-6. Three unforced errors from the Indian, and the score was once again all square.
They proceeded neck-and-neck, with Sindhu mostly leading by a point until Sung took the initiative at 16-15. A desperate Sindhu went into all-out attack mode, and they were locked at 18-18. A lucky net cord on a tight dribble earned Sindhu the 19th point, and then a lengthy rally, with strokes directed to every corner of the court, left both winded. Sindhu recovered her second wind a split-second quicker, and sealed the 29-minute second game at 21-18.
Sung realised that Sindhu would be on the better side of the court in the second half of the decider, and worked towards building a “cushion” in the first half of the game. Barging out to 4-0, she stayed ahead at 7-3 and 9-5, before going into lemon time at 11-6. The Korean never surrendered that vital five-point lead for the remainder of the tussle, as nerves got the better of the Indian and induced unforced errors, even as Sung remained rock-steady in defence.
The eventual 21-15 scoreline in the 25-minute final game was an accurate indicator of Sung’s superiority, though it must be said that Sindhu was not disgraced by the result. At 21, the Indian is just getting into the best years of her career, even as the 25-year-old Korean is currently at the peak of her powers, and has an outstanding chance on Sunday of avenging her 2014 Superseries final defeat at the hands of Tai Tzu Ying.
Updated Date: Dec 18, 2016 11:27:13 IST