It was PV Sindhu's finest hour. Having stumbled into the quarter-finals of the Indonesia Open World Tour Super 1000 badminton championships on the back of two unconvincing three-game victories, the 24 year old Olympic silver medallist rose to her best to administer a 21-14, 21-7 pummelling to Japan's 2017 world champion Nozomi Okuhara in Jakarta on Friday.
It was virtually a badminton master class that the fifth-seeded Indian produced, against the third-ranked Japanese who had edged her by a 22-20 third-game scoreline in the World Championship final in Glasgow, two years back. Sindhu was at the zenith of her powerful, aggressive game, barely putting a foot wrong in the course of 44 minutes of total domination that propelled her into the semi-finals of the prestigious $1.25 million prize money competition.
In the penultimate round on Saturday, Sindhu will take on the No 2 seed from China Chen Yufei, who made the grade with a hard-fought 21-14, 17-21, 21-16 win over Chinese-American Beiwen Zhang, the only player among the top bunch who travels around the world without a coach, manager or support staff.
The other semi-final will pit top-seeded Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei against fourth-seeded Akane Yamaguchi of Japan. In a battle between two uninhibited strokemakers, Tai got past the 2013 world champion Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand, while Yamaguchi did not have to struggle too much while sidelining another Thai Nitchaon Jindapol by a facile 21-17, 21-14 margin, coincidentally in exactly the same amount of time that it took Sindhu to subdue Okuhara.
What a difference the passage of just three brief months makes! When the two antagonists had clashed in the Singapore Open in mid-April, a totally out-of-sorts Sindhu did not event put up even the semblance of a fight, going down by a 7-21, 11-21 verdict to the utter despair of her legion of supporters.
That defeat had evened the scores of their 14 head-to-head meetings at 7-all, while giving the Japanese girl, just four months Sindhu's senior in age, the psychological edge heading into the 2019 Indonesia Open quarter-final. Those who looked closely at the history of their career meetings could detect a strange pattern of alternating wins and defeats for the two arch-rivals.
On Friday, it apparently was Sindhu's "turn" to end up in the ascendant. But what a sharp turn it was! It was as if the Hyderabadi was hell-bent on showing the Japanese how attacking, aggressive badminton should be played against an acknowledged stonewaller and master of attrition.
There was little that prepared the spectator for Sindhu's sustained aggression on Friday night. The Indian had crept past Japan's Aya Ohori in three tight games in her opening tie, just getting over the finish-line with a 11-21, 21-15, 21-15 victory, despite carrying a 6-0 career record against the Japanese left-hander into the match. She struggled to a 21-14, 17-21, 21-11 triumph against Denmark's Mia Blichfeldt in the second round, despite having thumped the Dane twice earlier within the last four months, in the India and Singapore Opens.
But it was a different Sindhu on display in the vast arena of the Istora Gelora Bung Karno on Friday. She was on the rampage from the very outset, and the defensive Okuhara simply did not stand a chance. The Japanese was always behind in the rallies, chasing the shuttle that her rival kept bringing down with sharp smashes and half-smashes. And she simply could not outplay her tall opponent at the net.
"I just felt good about my game today, and my feet were moving well," Sindhu said after the match. "I wanted to avoid getting into long rallies with her, and I was able to keep the rallies short. I have done a lot of speed work during training in the past couple of months, and I could feel the full effect today."
There were just two all-too-brief occasions when the Japanese girl held the advantage — at 6-5 in the first game, and at 1-0 in the second. Otherwise, it was Sindhu all the way, taking 10-6, 14-7 and 19-12 leads in the opener, before going a game up. She then streaked away from 11-7 at the mid-point interval in the second, to take the last ten points in an unbroken reel, as Okuhara simply wilted before the relentless onslaught.
On the strength of Friday's performance, Sindhu will be strongly favoured to sail past Chen Yufei — unless her notorious inconsistency gets the better of her. The Indian holds a 4-3 head-to-head advantage over the 21-year-old Chinese, but had lost to her younger rival at 11-21, 21-11, 15-21 in their most recent clash when the two had crossed swords at the China Open last September.
Sadly, Sindhu remains the only Indian representative in the last-four stage of a tournament that has thrown up upsets galore, especially in the men's singles. While four of the top five seeds in the women's singles have made it to the semi-finals, only one ranked player, in the shape of third-seeded Chou Tien Chen of Chinese Taipei, remains in the fray in the penultimate round of men's singles. He takes on the unseeded Thai Kantaphon Wangcharoen in Saturday's semi-finals.
But the big success story at these championships has been that of Hong Kong's 29-year-old Wong Wing Ki Vincent, whose 37th world ranking did not even secure him a place in the men's singles main draw until the last-minute pull-out of third-seeded Dane Viktor Axelsen. Wong made the most of his luck to eliminate India's B Sai Praneeth in three games in the opening round and compatriot Lee Cheuk Yiu in the second round, also in three games.
Wong claimed his biggest scalp on Friday when he scored a thumping 21-16, 21-13 win over fellow-countryman Ng Ka Long Angus, who had broken the hearts of Indian badminton fans by eliminating eighth-seeded Kidambi Srikanth at 21-17, 21-19 in his previous outing. In the semi-finals battle between two unseeded players, he will take on Denmark's Anders Antonsen who had little trouble in easing past Malaysia's Lee Zii Jia at 21-16, 21-11.
The tournament had earlier lost its No 2 seed Shi Yuqi, who sprained his ankle badly at 6-5 in the first game against Antonsen, and had to retire. The 23-year-old Chinese ace faces a lengthy battle to get fit in time to mount a challenge for a spot in the Chinese team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics; it is virtually certain that he will miss next month's World Championships in Basel, Switzerland.
How awful it must have felt for HS Prannoy to watch the brief Shi-Antonsen encounter from the sidelines. Just 24 hours earlier, he had played brilliantly to stretch the Chinese second seed over the full distance, forcing deuce in the decider before yielding by a 20-22 scoreline. It was the injury-ravaged Prannoy's best match over the past 18 months, and should give him plenty of confidence, heading to Basel.
Saturday's semi-finals begin at 12 noon, Indonesia time (09:30 AM., India time); and will be held on a single court. Sindhu will play the sixth match out of the scheduled ten. All matches are expected to be telecast.
Updated Date: Jul 20, 2019 08:46:25 IST