It was meant to be a gladiatorial contest and it did not disappoint. A three-game quarter-final would have excited the senses but there is something raw and bloody about an intense two-game struggle that ultimately lifts itself from the monotonous regularity of a win-defeat syndrome. Both Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu realise this is no ordinary rivalry. Neither is it about winning or losing anymore. When both step onto a court, they are not players but warriors. Strewn across the court is sweat, blood, aspirations and ambitions. And when they leave, drenched in sweat on a wave of fan adulation, it’s the glory they have fought for. Trophies, medals, prize money just become incidental. Glory envelops them.
And it did in the quarter-final clash, point by point, second by second and at the end of it all, many were exhausted by the sheer intensity and single-minded focus both of them brought to the court. It didn’t start in a cavalier fashion. Saina led 7-5 in the first game before Sindhu pulled up at seven all and then engaged in a rally that set the tone for the match. Two drop shots were picked up by a lunging Saina and then a cross court was whacked back to Sindhu’s corner, but the lanky Olympic star managed an overhead cross court smash that made the crowd gasp. At nine all, the stage was set. But then errors started to come in. Net dribbles landed in the net and safe forehand smashes whizzed past the baseline. Even a regular net dribble with Sindhu stranded in the back court, twirled on the net tantalisingly before dropping over to Saina’s side. The crowd sighed in disbelief.
Before you could say Pusarla Venkata Sidhu, the Olympic silver medallist had taken a lead of 17-12. It grew to 19-16 and the first game went comfortably to Sindhu at 21-16. What now was the question? Would the former World No 1 roll over or would Sindhu blank out the tie? There were no easy data-based answers as there was no history except for that one match in the Syed Modi GP Gold tournament in 2014 when Saina won 21-14, 21-17. At the Siri Fort courts, this was a different Sindhu who could control and also open the throttle if she decided. She was smoother on the court, her feet moving well, reflexes and mind agile to the threat by Saina.
In the second game, after an indifferent start, Saina led 6-3. The fans egged her on, slaves to the possibility of a third game. After a flurry of strokes on both sides, Saina led 9-6. She looked strong and confident. Her movement precise without faltering in mid court. Saina’s judgment also rattled Sindhu as two net dribbles have been caught early by the former World No 1. From the baseline the game moved onto the net. It was a shift in momentum and thinking on the part of both the players. Sindhu sensed Saina’s renewed confidence.
Saina cut out the errors and ploughed on to lead 14-10. A four-point lead appeared invincible. It seemed Saina will hold out. But Sindhu created her own moments. She cut Saina’s lead by two points, one with a delectable drop shot so well disguised that Saina stood rooted at the baseline and a cross court smash that seemed to be well in range till it dropped millimetres short, Saina almost dropping to her knees. But the game again changed. Saina led 19-16. Her fans were charged. They were sensing a third game. Sindhu cut the lead to 19-18 and then it was 19 all. And then to thunderous cheer, Saina led 20-19. Just a point and the ride would have continued. But a hush fell over the court as Saina pushed her serve into the net. “It’s at this point,” said Sindhu, “that I realised I can win this game and the match.” At 20-20, Sindhu pulled off two points and with a relief won the game 22-20 and the match. A complex plot of rallies, drop shots, lunging pick ups, high tosses, sharp smashes mixed with basic errors was over. The rivalry in only its second game had given us a preview. The fans were hungry already.
Sindhu thanked the fans saying they were great and she could hear them cheering both the players. “I don’t think this is a new rivalry. It’s been there for a long time. But we are friends off the court.” Speaking on the match, Sindhu, visibly relieved, explained that she was playing for one point each. “I wasn’t thinking of the end of the match,” she said. “I played for every point. Overall, it was a good match and I didn’t play under pressure.”
Downplaying the Saina vs Sindhu drama that makes each of us flock to the theatre, Sindhu said, rather deadpan, “It’s not something special with Saina that I have to win. With every player, I play with the same intensity.”
In the women’s semi-final, Sindhu will now play second seed Sung Ji Hyun of South Korea while Olympic champion Carolina Marin will take on Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi.
It would have been a good day for Indian men’s badminton if Sameer Verma had hung on to substantial leads in both the games but was let down by his finishing and errors at crucial stages. Sameer crashed out to Denmark’s Anders Antonsen 22-24, 19-21. “I’m really proud of this win,” said Antonsen. “Sameer is really tough and I saved many game points. But I still managed to win.” The Dane said it was tough to curb Sameer’s style as he played at a brisk pace. Antonsen will now take on Chinese Taipei’s Chou Tien Chen, the seventh seed.
Viktor Axelsen, two-time finalist here, on the other hand, had to wage a scrappy three-game battle with Chinese Taipei’s Tzu Wei Wang. But managed to hold on and win 19-21, 21-14, 21-16. “I am happy that I managed to win,” said Axelsen. “It was a match I could have easily lost but I stayed in and remained alive for in the tournament.”
Updated Date: Apr 01, 2017 12:31 PM