Pullela Gopichand wore an anxious look on his face as one of his wards PV Sindhu inched closer to reaching her maiden All England Open semi-final. Although, this wasn't the first time that the Indian national coach found himself in a tensed situation. In Birmingham, the Indian shuttlers have faced difficulties despite having the edge in the deciding games.
On Friday, World No 3 Kidambi Srikanth ran out of luck despite leading 20-18 in the decider against Huang Yuxiang, while the young duo of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty squandered a match point against experienced Danish pair in the second round.
So, before Sindhu could get into the position to serve for the match point at 20-18 against rival Nozomi Okuhara, Gopichand urged his ward to focus only on the next one point. A 31-shot rally followed and at the end of it, Sindhu's half push from the mid-court made to be the difference after 84 minutes of top-class badminton.
The match lived up to its billing, as both shuttlers played like fighters, and produced yet another classic on one of biggest stages in world badminton. A thriller was delivered, as one would have expected. Similar to the one where these two gave an exhibition of admirable strokeplay in a 110-minute marathon World Championship final in Glasgow or like the one that went down to the wire in the summit clash of Korea Open a few months later.
This match wasn’t as long as the other marathon matches the two have enthralled in. But, between the Glasgow heartbreak and the Birmingham showdown, a lot has been changed for both Sindhu and Okuhara. While Sindhu clinched the Korea Open and made it to the finals of Hong Kong, Dubai World Superseries Finals and India Open, Okuhara was absent from the circuit after picking up an injury in September.
With momentum on her side, Sindhu overcame the last-second mistake of losing, of finishing as runner-up at major events, which turned out to be the case at both World Badminton Championships and Dubai Finals against Japanese shuttlers. Those two losses might have taken a toll on the mental aspect of her game but it is clear that has learned from her past mistakes.
"I have been working on the mental side in such moments,” she told the reporters after the match. “The coach has been telling me that this will happen. At times, when you hit your taps out, (shots) on which you actually had to get points, and you lose the point, you lose your confidence and just get nervous. Then, the coach has been telling me: 'Just let go, the point is over. Finished.' I’ve been practising these moments and it’s getting better," she added.
Explaining her strategy after the match, Sindhu further admitted that she was prepared to face the long rallies against Okuhara as it is hard to take her down. “You have to strategise your game with each point. At that point of time if you go thinking that something might happen and if actually things happen opposite to your planning then you have to immediately change,” she said after the match.
Yet, despite ticking all the boxes against Okuhara, Sindhu should brace herself for an even tougher challenge on Saturday. The fourth-seeded Indian shuttler faces an uphill task of finding her feet all over again in the semi-final where another Japanese Akane Yamaguchi, who defeated Sindhu in the final of season-ending Dubai tournament last year, awaits.
Yamaguchi has a similar style to that of her compatriot Okuhara, although the second seed is quicker and much more aggressive than Okuhara. "Both the shuttlers have beaten each other. They know each other's game quite well. Yamaguchi counter-attacks well and can deliver drop shots from the backcourt. Sindhu should take care of that," said former coach of Saina Nehwal, Vimal Kumar.
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Notably, Sindhu has had to battle past her opponents over three games in each of her three matches so far in the tournament. In the 206 minutes that she has played so far, the Hyderabad-born shuttler fought back from a game down in the lung-opener against Thailand's Pornpawee Chochuwong before getting past the ever-deceptive Nitchaon Jindapol, who knocked Ratchanok Intanon out, in the second round. On the other hand, Yamaguchi had an easy route to the semi-finals, which includes an impressive straight-games win over Carolina Marin.
Despite trailing 12-16 in two of the three energy-sapping battles, Sindhu has proved that she can stand tall against the physical and mental pressure. "Sindhu's fitness levels are quite good otherwise she wouldn't have been able to play those horrendous rallies yesterday. The more Sindhu plays, she gets better," he added.
Just a week ago, Yamaguchi went on to claim the German Open title, which might give her a slight edge over Sindhu. As far as the head-to-head is concerned, it is Sindhu who has come out victorious in six of their nine previous matches, with four of those wins coming in straight games. What's more interesting is that only three of their nine career meetings went down to the wire, with Sindhu winning two of those matches.
However, Sindhu got the better of the 5'1" shuttler in their previous meeting at the Badminton Asia Team Championships earlier this year, where she won 21-19, 21-15. "Akane will use a lot of deceptive shots and when she gets into the rhythm. She hits quite well from the flanks. She won the German Open last week so I believe she should be more tired than Sindhu," said Kumar.
Earlier at the India Open in January, Gopichand spoke about how he was working on sharpening Sindhu's hand speed and forecourt movements. There have been flashes of brilliance from her since winning silver at Rio Olympics but she has also struggled to lunge ahead and return cross-court drop shots thrown at her. "She should keep well at the net. Most of the times she likes to lunge and then move back so that adds pressure to her knees. The good part her is that Yamaguchi doesn't hit flat clears. Her clears are usually high which I think Sindhu can take care of," explained Kumar.
The only worry for Sindhu would be to combat Yamaguchi's attack. Essentially a retriever, the 20-year-old has also developed a variety of attacking strokes to her armoury. That's one of the reasons why she is on an eight-match winning streak. "Sindhu appears to be tired and her body language is slightly poor but when the rally begins, she recovers well. She has to use her half smash judiciously. Little bit of deception is required so that she can delay and play attacking clears and downward shots," he added.
Like the Dubai Finals, we might witness Yamaguchi employing her rally-based game on Saturday as she would try her best to drain Sindhu out in the early stages of the match. The Japanese shuttler has got power in her strokes but Sindhu can defend those by using her height to her advantage and in return, she could take her opponent by surprise with wristy strokes and half smashes. It would be interesting to see how Sindhu recovers from the tiring quarter-final encounter. If she aces this test, she could be in contention to become the first Indian woman to claim the coveted title on Sunday.
Updated Date: Mar 17, 2018 19:30 PM