One can debate long and hard over the inescapable feeling that the five-day India Open Super Series badminton championships that rolled to a climax at the Siri Fort Indoor Complex in New Delhi on the evening of Sunday, 2 April, witnessed the end of an era in Indian badminton, and the start of a vibrant new one.
Pusarla Venkata Sindhu’s commanding final victory over Spain’s reigning world, Olympic and European champion Carolina Marin, two days after a straight-sets quarter-final triumph over fellow countrywoman Saina Nehwal, did indicate that Saina’s eight-year reign as the undisputed queen of Indian badminton has come to an end, and that her willowy compatriot has lain claim to the crown.
There is always a feeling of ineffable sadness when one observes an iconic player who has ruled the roost for a considerable period of time finally give in to the weight of years and grudgingly allow ascension to her throne by an effervescent compatriot who boasts the bubble of youth, bolstered by a far superior level of fitness of a body that has not been ravaged by any major, career-threatening injury.
Six clear years separate 2012 Olympic bronze medallist and 2015 World Championships silver medal winner Saina from the 21 year old Sindhu, who has notched up a sort of “reverse achievement” from Saina, of an Olympic silver medal (Rio 2016) and two World Championship bronze medals (2013 and 2014).
Saina, who turned 27 on 17th March this year, has dominated the Indian badminton scene since 2009, winning a dozen Super Series titles at international level, and scaling the Mount Everest of the Badminton World Federation rankings for a few weeks in the first quarter of 2015.
The ‘Haryana Hurricane” of badminton has been the undisputed leader of the country’s challenge in international team competitions like the Uber Cup and Sudirman Cup during this entire period. She may still score over her former Gopichand Academy team-mate in the future, but one cannot help the feeling that Sindhu has now assumed a distinct psychological advantage over Saina.
Sindhu, who had hovered at around the 9th to 12th spot for the most part of 2016, has made a strong dash up the rankings in the opening weeks of 2017, and has an outstanding chance of powering past Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun (whom she ousted in the semi-finals of the India Open) and also displacing Marin from the No.2 spot behind Taiwan’s Tai Tzu Ying when the world rankings are next announced.
The Spanish left-hander had opened up a 5-2 career head-to-head lead over Sindhu at the end of the Rio Olympics, but has since been reined in to 5-4, with Sindhu winning their last two meetings in the 2016 Dubai Super Series year-ending grand finals and now in the 2017 India Open. Revenge has been gained twice over, but one cannot help a lingering feeling of regret that these sterling performances have come a mite too late to net India its first Olympic badminton gold.
What is it that has transformed Sindhu in the course of a scant seven months since the conclusion of the 2016 Olympics, from a strong contender to a consistent world-beater?
The manner of the Indian’s five victories that netted her the title and the US$24,375 first prize cheque give some indication of the vast improvement that Sindhu has undergone during this brief period when she won the China Open and was runner-up in the Hong Kong Open last November, made the semi-finals of the Dubai Super Series grand finals in December, and the quarter-finals of the All England last month before losing to eventual winner Tai Tzu Ying.
At the India Open, an event in which the four top seeds in the women’s singles all safely claimed their due semi-final berths, Sindhu opened with an effortless 21-17, 21-6 win over fellow Indian Arundhati Pantawane, a former National runner-up; and was then stretched in the second game by Japan’s Saena Kawakami for a 21-16, 23-21 verdict.
Then came the encounter that all of India was looking forward to, with the fans split right down the middle as to whether they should support Queen Saina or Princess Sindhu. The quarter-final tussle was far from easy for Sindhu, and the older woman among the two, would not have been flattered if she had restored parity in the second stanza after losing the first a little tamely at 16-21.
Saina was ahead all the way, with useful 12-9, 14-10 and 17-14 leads. She was in the ascendant until 19-17, but began looking increasingly shaky as Sindhu piled on the pressure. Still, Saina had a game-point at 20-19, but frittered away the advantage by sensationally serving into the net – the first faulty serve in the entire match! Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, the younger girl used her new-found expertise at the net to control the final two rallies, and ended the contest at 22-20 with a sizzling overhead sideline smash.
Right through the match, Sindhu appeared the more mobile player of the two – which was not surprising in itself, since Saina had frankly admitted that she did not feel her right knee was in 100% fit condition for the rigours of an international tournament. Sindhu was also the more aggressive player, always seeking to create openings to score points, while Saina was restricted to a more defensive role, only unfurling her famed body smashes on rare occasions.
Going into the penultimate round, Sindhu would have been painfully aware that, although she had a 6-4 head-to-head lead over Korea’s No.2 seed, Sung Ji Hyun, she had tasted defeat at the Korean’s hands in their most recent encounter, the semi-finals of the Dubai Super Series grand finals last December. Yes, she had beaten Sung in the Premier Badminton League during the crucial Chennai Smashers-Mumbai Rockets clash, but that had been in the truncated 11 x 3 format.
In the event, the Indian only suffered a hiccup in the second game against Sung, producing a string of unforced errors when she played with the drift in the stadium, and pushed a number of shuttles out at the baseline. In the decider, however, the physically fitter Sindhu took a vice-like grip on the match at the midway stage itself, and did not relent in the closing reaches, letting her superior stamina weigh in the balance against the Korean, for a 21-18, 14-21, 21-14 verdict.
Then, in the final reckoning against the noisy, vociferous Marin, in a clash which had taken on all the hues of a grudge match, Sindhu hit peak form, moving beautifully on the court to prevent the Spanish southpaw from gaining ascendancy with her own speed. The Indian’s shuttle control was exemplary, as Marin rarely got an opportunity to get under or behind the shuttle to execute her deceptive left-handed slices and drops.
Sindhu also reached the net quicker than when she had played Marin in the Olympics – a tactic that allowed her to produce tighter net dribbles, making contact with the bird at a higher point from the floor than earlier, and still retaining the flexibility of using the late flick clear. She used her height even better than she had done in the Olympics, especially while playing the overhead shots from the backhand side. She did not over-use the overhead crosscourt smash, since it would travel to Marin’s forehand side, decidedly her stronger flank.
There were two newly developed deceptive strokes that one saw Sindhu execute right through the tournament – a late flick clear from the backhand midcourt when she gives the impression of employing the drop shot; and an excellent crosscourt smash, played from behind her body, when she is pushed deep and high into the forehand backcourt. This extremely difficult stroke won Sindhu crucial points against the left-handed Marin who kept anticipating the smash down the line on her own forehand.
One more Sindhu attribute that was noticed by badminton buffs throughout the tournament – her ability to stay calm in the face of adversity, perhaps even employing a touch of gamesmanship. She repeatedly held her left hand up, making Marin, who uses minimal time between points, wait a few seconds extra before serving, and thereby inducing an undercurrent of irritation in the world champion’s mien.
One also saw Sindhu repeatedly untying and re-tying her shoe-laces after every few rallies, as she sought to calm her nerves down – a tactic that even the sternest umpire, intent on pulling up a player for time-wasting tactics, is helpless against. It is not that she was breathless and trying to draw second wind; she was merely being more deliberate in her approach to the next rally.
Yes, this was a fitter, stronger, more mature, tactically wiser and street-smart Sindhu that Indian fans were fortunate to see on her home turf. Saina Nehwal, Sung Ji Hyun and Carolina Marin, three of her strongest rivals on the world circuit, have been vanquished; now only the redoubtable world No.1, Tai Tzu Ying, remains as the final hurdle in the path to the pinnacle of the world rankings.
Updated Date: Apr 06, 2017 16:38 PM