The next chapter of the PV Sindhu–Nozomi Okuhara rivalry that has captured the imagination of the badminton world is scheduled to be played out on Thursday, after the two ace shuttlers negotiated their opening-round matches of the Japan Open Superseries championships in contrasting fashion.
Whereas the unseeded Okuhara, playing in her home tournament at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, notched up an impressive performance while subduing the potentially dangerous Cheung Ngan Yi of Hong Kong at 21-15, 21-13 in a matter of 40 minutes, the fourth-ranked Sindhu laboured for three minutes over the hour mark while repeating her Korea Open triumph over Japan’s Minatsu Mitani with a 12-21, 21-15, 21-17 scoreline.
Earlier, the other Indian in the women’s singles event of the $325,000 tournament, Saina Nehwal, produced a workmanlike display while ousting the baby-faced 19-year-old Pornpawee Chochuwong of Thailand at 21-17, 21-9, simply growing in confidence as the match progressed.
The knowledge that she went into the match with a 2-0 career head-to-head advantage over the Thai teenager, having subdued her inexperienced rival in straight games at both the Malaysia Masters and the India Open this year, would have helped Nehwal in her quest for a second-round berth, and a meeting with two-time former world champion and No 5 seed, Carolina Marin of Spain. Marin was far too strong for China’s Chen Xiaoxin, registering a facile 21-11, 21-11 triumph.
The 27-year-old Indian ace actually holds a 4-3 lead over the Spanish left-hander in career meetings, but would be sobered by the fact that Marin has won on three of the last four meetings, including their most recent duel at the Indonesia Open Superseries Premier, a little over three months ago.
Another Indian to move past the opening hurdle in the competition was young Sameer Verma, who experienced a few moments of anxiety in the second game before he could overpower Thai qualifier, Khosit Phetpradab at 21-12, 21-19. An erratic Verma actually trailed 17-19 against the unheralded Thai, before closing out the match and earning a second-round meeting with China’s No 2 seed and 2017 All England runner-up, Shi Yuqi.
The 22-year-old native of Dhar, Madhya Pradesh, trails 0-1 against the Chinese player, one year his junior, having lost to Shi in straight games at the Bitburger Open in November last year. Verma, however, is playing substantially better than he was back then, although it must be underscored that Shi has also improved greatly over the past 10 months, and currently occupies the No 4 spot in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings.
As had been widely expected, the first-round tie for Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty against the world’s No 3 pair of Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo proved a bridge too far; and the young Indians duly capitulated to the crack Indonesian combination, ranked world No 1 not all that long ago.
However, the scoreline of 27-25, 21-15 in favour of the Indonesians flattered the Indians, who made up a 17-20 deficit in the opening game, and actually held two game-points before the more fancied duo could breathe free, and could then exert their supremacy in the second stanza.
If one considers the fact that this was Rankireddy’s sixth match in two days, after winning two qualifying-round matches each in the men’s and mixed doubles the previous day, and a mixed-doubles first-round match in the company of Ashwini Ponnappa in the morning, a better perspective can be had on the loss against Gideon and Sukamuljo. There can be no two opinions that the 17-year-old Andhra native is a player for the future.
Let us go back to the 63-minute battle-royal between Sindhu and Mitani, who had been locked at 2-2 in career meetings before the Japan Open clash. Mitani’s style does not suit Sindhu’s game at all. The Japanese, a former top 10 player who is currently ranked No 19, is a more uninhibited stroke-player than her essentially defensive compatriot, Okuhara.
And so it was that Mitani simply ran away with the opening game at 21-12, and opened up a 5-2 lead in the second, before the Indian could collect her wits. However, once Sindhu neutralised the lead at 7-all, she was not headed off, and stayed at least three points ahead, all the way to the tape.
Sindhu was even more assertive in the decider, and ran up massive 15-6 and 18-10 leads before suffering her now-familiar end-game blues, and allowing Mitani to reduce the margin to a much more respectable level. It was not a dominating performance, but better suited to being ranked alongside those that tennis player Brad Gilbert has recounted in his book Winning Ugly, that provides lessons in waging mental warfare.
As for the 40-minute long Cheung-Okuhara tie which, by the diminutive 22-year-old Japanese star’s standards, was a fairly short, routine encounter, it can be safely deduced that the Hong Kong player failed to trouble the local crowds’ darling at any time during the match.
After briefly trailing 0-2 and 2-3 in the opening game, Okuhara stepped on the gas pedal, and did not concede the lead even once during the rest of the encounter. The result took the world champion’s head-to-head tally against Cheung to 3-0, all straight-games victories without being at all stretched.
The badminton world can now prepare for Thursday’s magnum opus — the second-round tie between Okuhara and Sindhu, which only came about at this early stage of the competition because the Japanese world champion was ranked world No 9 at the time of closing the entries for the Japan Open, and therefore, could not be seeded among the top eight.
Their head-to-head record is deadlocked at 4-4, although the Indian has won three of their last four clashes — at the semi-final stage of the 2016 Rio Olympics, and in the finals of the 2017 Singapore Open and Korea Open. Okuhara, of course, won the most important of those matches — the World Championship final, and by the wafer-thin margin of 22-20 in the decider, after Sindhu had held a 19-17 lead.
So evenly matched are the two players, with Sindhu’s height, reach, power and aggression being blunted by Okuhara’s outstanding footwork, netplay, speed of foot and defence, that it is well-nigh impossible to predict the winner. Just the slightest of intangible advantages — including which side of the bed each woman gets up from, as also the fervent prayers of the rival contingents of supporters — could decide which player progresses to the Tokyo Open quarter-finals!
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Updated Date: Sep 21, 2017 00:13:29 IST