Dominating and implacable. Those were the two words that sprang to the mind while describing PV Sindhu’s on-court demeanour, as the No 5 seed took just 46 minutes to demolish the challenge of second seed and title favourite, Chen Yufei of China, by a 21-19, 21-10 scoreline in Saturday’s semi-finals of the Indonesia Open World Tour Super 1000 badminton championships.
The 24-year-old Sindhu’s heroics at Jakarta’s Istora Gelora Bung Karno – which involved plotting the mental disintegration of her Chinese opponent, two years her junior – propelled her into her first final this year, and placed her in pole position to bag the top prize in the 38th edition of the elite $1.25 million event, a competition won four times in a row in the past (2009-2012) by her senior compatriot, Saina Nehwal.
In order to have her name inscribed on the winner’s cheque of $87,500 on Sunday, the Indian will have to score her 11th victory in 15 career meetings over Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi, who waltzed through her semi-final with an unexpectedly facile 21-9, 21-15 win in a mere 32 minutes over World No 1, top seed and defending champion, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei.
The hopes of Sindhu’s ardent supporters, in the wake of her magnificent 21-14, 21-7 quarter-final victory on Friday over Japan’s 2017 world champion, Nozomi Okuhara, had rocketed sky-high.
But there was also an undercurrent of worry over how she would perform against the redoubtable Chen, who has been the most consistent performer among all shuttlers in 2019, reaching at least the semi-finals of all the seven tournaments she has played, and winning the prestigious All-England in March.
In fact, it is just over seven months since Sindhu last played two outstanding matches in a row, so there was reason to doubt her mental resolve, if not quite her capability. She had played five excellent matches on as many days to lower the colours of five of the world’s finest female shuttlers – Tai Tzu Ying, Akane Yamaguchi, Beiwen Zhang of the USA, Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand and Nozomi Okuhara – to bag the World Tour finals title in mid-December last year.
Sindhu also appeared to come off second-best in a comparison of her career graph of the past 18 months with that of Chen Yufei. In 2018, the Chinese girl had reached five tournament finals before she won the China Open; Sindhu had ended runner-up in six events before winning the World Tour grand finals in Guangzhou.
This year, in the wake of Tai’s visible decline, Yufei has appeared to be the world’s best player as she has not been beaten before the last-four stage in any of the tournaments she has played. In stark contrast, Sindhu’s struggles in the first half of the year have been well documented.
As matters panned out on Saturday, the fans needn’t have worried. There were two stand-out elements in Sindhu’s preparation that allowed her to step up a gear in the second game – some hard yards in the gymnasium to build up muscle strength and speed, and a new coach in South Korea’s Kim Ji Hyun, one of three coaches imported from Korea and Indonesia for the benefit of India’s elite shuttlers.
Kim, who had represented her country in two Olympics – at Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000 – bristles with energy, and talks nineteen to the dozen when instructing her ward during the mid-game intervals and breaks between games. One could see a great connect between Sindhu and her new coach, as she kept looking at Kim between points and nodding in appreciation at the mimed suggestions.
An additional factor that came to Sindhu’s aid was the slowness and heaviness of the courts at the Istora Gelora, similar to the conditions that had prevailed in Guangzhou last December, when Sindhu had ended up unbeaten in five encounters. Playing in such conditions made heavy demands on strength and staying power; and the Indian scored more marks on these two parameters than her relatively frail Chinese antagonist.
All the drama of the semi-final was crammed into the first game, in which Chen pressed hard, controlling and dominating the rallies, even as Sindhu was forced to alternate between attack and resolute defence in the face of her rival’s sharp drops and slices. The Chinese girl took early leads of 4-2 and 8-4, but they went into lemon time almost even, with Sindhu holding a slim one-point advantage.
Even as Chen accelerated away after the resumption of hostilities, the match turned on its head when the No 2 seed led 18-14. Sindhu somehow found that extra gear, and ran away with seven of the next eight points, to change courts with the massive psychological advantage of winning the first game.
Although Chen opened out to a handy 4-0 lead in the second, Sindhu restored parity at 5-all, and pushed on to an 11-8 lead. It was at this point that the Indian turned ruthless enforcer, forcing the pace and totally breaking down Chen’s mental resolve even as the Chinese girl’s legs flagged a mite and her concentration wavered because every stroke she hit was coming back with dividends attached. There was only one player in the rest of the encounter.
The Indian ace will go into the final with the psychological advantage of having beaten Yamaguchi five times in the six matches they have been involved in since the beginning of 2018, and including victories in their most recent four duels. But the Japanese girl should not be under-estimated for, in addition to indulging in lengthy, energy-sapping rallies, she is capable of playing bursts of fast and furious badminton – as she did on Saturday against a shell-shocked Tai.
The men’s singles penultimate-round clashes witnessed the day’s closest and most long-drawn tussle, when third-seeded Chou Tien Chen of Chinese Taipei just about managed to outlast Thailand’s up-and-coming Kantaphon Wangcharoen 21-19, 18-21, 21-16 in an hour and 17 minutes.
In what has been a tournament of shocks for the men’s singles shuttlers, and which had witnessed the demise of six of the eight seeds before the quarter-final stage, Chou will take on the winner of the other semi-final between two unseeded players, Anders Antonsen of Denmark and Wong Wing Ki Vincent of Hong Kong. This match had not been completed at the time of filing this dispatch.
Sunday’s finals begin at 2 pm, Indonesia time (12:30 pm, IST). Sindhu is scheduled to play the second match of the day, at the end of the women’s doubles.
Updated Date: Jul 20, 2019 21:38:25 IST