Exactly three weeks after the passage of one of the greatest finals in the history of world badminton, lovers of the sport will get another opportunity to witness an encore between the two protagonists who shed blood, toil, tears and sweat on the green synthetic courts laid in Glasgow’s Emirates Arena.
India’s willowy PV Sindhu, who was deprived of the World Championship gold medal by Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara after a titanic 110-minute David versus Goliath battle that has become the stuff of legend, qualified on Saturday to match wits again with Okuhara for the women’s singles title of the 2017 Korea Open Superseries badminton championships.
The No 5 seed Sindhu struggled for an hour and six minutes to subdue her Chinese opponent He Bingjiao 21-10, 17-21, 21-16, to barge into the final of the $600,000 event.
The recently crowned world champion had made the grade by extending her hegemony over compatriot and No 2 seed Akane Yamaguchi with a relatively facile 21-17, 21-18 win that came in 38 minutes.
It must have rankled with the 22-year-old Sindhu that Bingjiao, two years her junior, had gone into their semi-final meeting with a 5-3 advantage in head-to-head meetings. The two had traded wins alternately on the last six occasions that they had met, after the Chinese player had opened out an initial 2-0 lead.
Their most recent clash at the Badminton Asia Championships in April this year, had been desperately close, ending in a 15-21, 21-14, 24-22 triumph for the younger player.
At Seoul’s SK Handball Stadium, which had attracted only a handful of spectators on Saturday following the quarter-final eclipse of their darlings Son Wan Ho and Sung Ji Hyun, Sindhu started in storming fashion, and was a game up before her opponent could settle into the match.
Massive leads of 5-0, 9-1, 13-4 and 18-7 made it amply clear that the Indian was in an implacable mood after her off-colour performance against Japan’s Minatsu Mitani the previous day.
When Sindhu leaped out into a 9-3 lead in the second game, it appeared that the writing was on the wall. But then, the young Chinese southpaw launched her fightback, picking up points to not only neutralise at 15-all but actually take the lead for the first time in the match at 16-15.
It was nothing more than Sindhu’s notorious nerves and inability to close out a match by the short route that prevented her from taking the match in straight games.
With the momentum now firmly in her favour, Bingjiao was able to match her tall rival point for point, and there was almost nothing separating them until 9-all, after which the Indian went into the mid-game change of ends with a minor two-point advantage at 11-9.
While Sindhu used her height and reach to bring the shuttle down at the slightest opportunity, her stocky left-handed antagonist defended dourly, and refused to concede cheap points.
Sindhu’s ace-in-the-hole on the day was her ability to turn Bingjiao’s overhead smashes into deft crosscourt returns that dropped just behind the service line on the Chinese player’s forehand. This unexpected counter from the Indian, not exactly renowned for her defence, had the disconcerted Bingjiao caught on the wrong foot on more than one occasion.
It was two such returns that helped Sindhu to jump from 13-12 to 16-12, a lead she never relinquished during the residual portion of the match. The Indian demonstrated exemplary patience in the rallies and concentrated hard in the closing reaches of the battle to ensure that she did not repeat her end-game stutter of the second stanza.
On the other hand, the 22-year-old Okuhara was confidence personified against her fellow-countrywoman Yamaguchi as she mounted a start-to-finish gallop in the first game. Both Uber Cup team-mates are essentially defensive players, and know each other’s game inside-out, after spending lengthy spells in national camps.
The freshly crowned world champion had a slight edge in speed and deception, especially with the crosscourt drops from both flanks, which she adroitly used to finish their interminable rallies.
The Glasgow gold medal seemed to speak out from Okuhara’s racket strings as she finally broke away from 16-all in the tightly contested second game to breast the tape and seal her berth in the final against Sindhu.
It is hard to predict which side of the bed the 5’ 10” tall Indian will get up from on Sunday morning. She was nowhere near the top of her form in the quarter-final against Mitani, but yet contrived to find a way around the 26-year-old Japanese, with whom she had shared the third rung of the 2014 World Championships. The ability to sniff out the winning route when you are relatively struggling is what distinguishes a champion from an also-ran.
The fact that the Hyderabadi has improved her stamina, mental strength and tactical acumen to be able to win on a day when her body is responding only sluggishly to the dictates of her mind indicates that Sindhu, in the run-up to the recent World Championships, has taken that essential final half-step towards attaining a champion’s status.
Okuhara, of course, is in top form – the kind of form that netted her the year-ending Dubai Superseries grand finals title in December 2015, followed by the prestigious All England crown in March 2016. The two players are very evenly matched, with Okuhara being able to take the edge off Sindhu’s aggression with her immaculate defence and outstanding netplay.
Indeed, the diminutive Japanese is feared as one of the world’s best players at the net.
Okuhara will go into the Korea Open Superseries final with the slimmest of leads over Sindhu in their head-to-heads – a 4-3 advantage delivered by that momentous 22-20 third-game scoreline of their gold medal clash in Glasgow. Just this single statistic provides the Indian with the incentive to avenge that defeat which had cruelly relegated her to the second rung of the victory rostrum.
Updated Date: Sep 16, 2017 18:04 PM