In a week’s time, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu will celebrate her 23rd birthday, having already been a veteran of the international badminton circuit for just under a decade. The question on everyone’s lips, after her 52-minute 22-20, 21-19 victory over Spain’s Carolina Marin in the Malaysia Open quarter-finals on Friday is — Has Sindhu reached the pinnacle of her powers, and is she ready to shed the opprobrium of being a perennial runner-up, and don the mantle of World champion?
It is something of an achievement that the precocious Sindhu broke into India’s Uber Cup squad in 2010, when aged just 15. Since then, her career has consistently taken an upward curve, starting with the Malaysian Open title in 2013, and followed by India’s first-ever bronze medal by a female player at the World Championships the same year, with victories over illustrious names like China’s Wang Yihan and Wang Shixian.
There was to be another bronze at the 2014 Copenhagen Worlds, but Sindhu narrowly missed a hat-trick of medals in 2015. Then, at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, she strode imperiously into the final; and was only beaten at 21-15 in the third and deciding game of a memorable final by Marin, who had also bagged the previous two World Championship titles.
The time appeared to be ripe for Sindhu to wear the world crown, but after yet another brilliant run to the final of the 2017 event in Glasgow, she came up a whisker short, losing 22-20 to Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara in the third game of a summit clash that has been rated one of the greatest finals of all time.
Another silver medal to add to the Olympic ‘silverware’ of the previous year.
And then in November, there was yet another heart-breaking loss in the finals of the Indian Nationals to Gopichand Academy stable-mate, Saina Nehwal.
It would have been less than human if Sindhu were not to take this sequence of results to heart, and try to work out in her mind just where she had gone wrong, and exactly what she could do to turn things around. She seemed hell-bent on making amends in the ongoing season.
For one thing, she skipped the prestigious Uber Cup international team competition, preferring to train for the tough season ahead. She also ensured that her training was conducted in a different Gopichand Academy centre, albeit in Hyderabad, from the one being used by her nemesis Saina, who had returned in 2017 to her original guru after spending three years under Vimal Kumar at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Bangalore.
The Malaysia Open, a tournament she had won in 2013, was to provide the litmus test of whether Sindhu could vault that final hurdle. She started hesitantly, being stretched fully in the first game by Japanese left-hander Aya Ohori, and having to save two game-points before pocketing the opener, and then easing through the second game for a 26-24, 21-15 win. Her second round was a cakewalk – a 21-8, 21-14 triumph over Malaysia’s highly over-matched Lee Ying Ying.
And then came the quarter-final against the Spanish left-hander who had beaten her to the Olympic gold. The statistics were marginally unfavourable – she trailed 5-6 in 11 career meetings with Marin, and had lost their most recent duel at the Singapore Open in April last year. However, Sindhu had won two of their three post-Rio Olympics meetings and no clear deduction was possible from this array of results.
In the event on Friday, the manner of Sindhu’s victory at the Axiata Arena in suburban Kuala Lumpur allowed for two directly related conclusions – that the Indian has improved since her Rio loss, nearly two years ago and Marin’s game has definitely deteriorated.
In a topsy-turvy peroration to the first game, it was Sindhu who led 18-15 and then allowed Marin to reel off five straight points to go to 20-18. Sindhu, then held her faltering nerve to claim the next four points and the opening stanza.
Sindhu was in full cry in the second game, and should have piled on the pressure when she led 11-6 at the mid-game interval, at which point Marin tripped while backpedalling, and landed heavily on her posterior. Instead, she allowed the Spaniard to all but restore parity at 14-15, in yet another disheartening demonstration of end-game blues. Her body language screamed nervousness, even desperation; and it could be safely said that she was distinctly fortunate the match did not go into a decider.
Yes, to allow Sindhu one merit point — she did show tactical acumen by breaking the resurgent Marin’s string of aces by mounting a Hawk-eye challenge on a line call that everyone in the stadium knew she could not win. It achieved the Indian’s objective of breaking the Spaniard’s concentration; and Sindhu held on for dear life, to break away to 19-15, and finally stumble across the finish line.
Marin recently admitted that she had achieved all that she had set out to do at the start of her career, and that she was suffering from a lack of motivation. On the strength of Sindhu’s performance against the two-time former World Champion on Friday, it appears doubtful whether the No 3 seed can take in her stride reigning World No 1 and top seed, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, in Saturday’s semi-finals.
The Taiwanese ace was badminton’s equivalent of Muhammad Ali’s “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”, in a 21-15, 21-15 demolition of Malaysia’s Goh Jin Wei, thoroughly unperturbed even when she trailed 6-11 in the opening stanza. Once Tai adjusted to the stadium drift, and got her teeth into the match, there was precious little that Goh could do to stem the tide, even though the vociferous crowd did its level best to egg their girl on.
Sindhu has not beaten Tai in any of their last three outings, and trails 3-8 in career head-to-heads against the 24-year-old Taiwanese, almost exactly a year her senior in age. Their winner will take on the victor of the other semi-final between fourth-seeded Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand and China’s eighth-seeded He Bingjiao, who caused the biggest upset of the women’s singles draw by sidelining the No 2 seed from Japan, Akane Yamaguchi, by a 21-18, 21-18 scoreline.
There were upsets galore in the men’s singles, as well, with top-seeded Viktor Axelsen of Denmark biting the dust against Malaysian veteran Lee Chong Wei by a runaway 17-21, 9-21 margin, and All England champion Shi Yuqi of China being brought to heel by Indonesia’s unseeded Tommy Sugiarto, at 21-13, 13-21, 13-21.
Kidambi Srikanth, the No 4 seed, however, kept his appointed place in the semi-final with an effortless 21-18, 21-14 triumph over French journeyman, Brice Leverdez. The Indian has the onerous task of taking on the red-hot Japanese left-hander, Kento Momota, who continued his giant-killing spree by making Chinese Taipei’s No 6 seed, Chou Tien Chen, look rather pedestrian in a 21-19, 21-11 pummelling.
Srikanth has a losing 3-5 career record against Momota, and has lost their last two meetings, but can take some heart in the fact that their last encounter took place more than two years ago, at the 2016 All England, just before Momota was banned for a year by his country’s badminton association for indulging in illegal gambling.
The 24-year-old Japanese player has come back even fitter, faster and with metronomic steadiness than he was at the time of his unfortunate ban, and has a string of top-ten scalps in his satchel this year. He will be looking to add Srikanth to a bag already overflowing with names like Axelsen, Son Wan Ho and Chou Tien Chen. And no astute betting man would denigrate his chances of doing exactly that.
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Updated Date: Jun 29, 2018 23:56:40 IST