The audience's roar threatens to overpower the packed Emirates Arena in Glasgow. PV Sindhu's hunched over, head in her hands. Exhausted. She's barely managing to stay on her feet. She throws her racquet down on the court. On the other side of the net, Nozomi Okuhara is flat on the floor. Panting. Struggling to make sense of what's just happened.
What had happened until then, and what was to come, was not badminton for sure. This had transcended the simple act of hitting a shuttlecock across the net long ago. This was as bruising as boxing or as tactical as chess or as energy-sapping as running a marathon, if not more. The players looked spent. After a punishing 73-shot rally, who wouldn't?
The rally had lasted 80 seconds. To Sindhu and Okuhara, it must have felt like an eternity. Sindhu winning the rally forces the World Championships final into a third game. Round 1 in Okuhara's favour, Round 2 in Sindhu's.
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The last time the two met was in the semi-finals of 2016 Rio Olympics, where Sindhu comfortably defeated the Japanese to seal her place in the final. But, the World Championships match was something else.
The players caught their breath and came back on the court to do it again. It's going to be a long night. It's going to be a longer face-off. Round 3 had got the crowd on their feet. The see-saw battle continued in the decider too: 11-11, 15-15 and 19-19 read the scoreboard until the Japanese capitalised on Sindhu's error at the net to become the first woman from Japan to win the World Championships.
"She was never easy and each time we play against each other, there are tough and long rallies. I didn't take her to be easy and I was prepared that the match would be long but unfortunately, I lost. It was not my day. Both of us were going for each point and we were both tired after such long rallies. Overall it was a good match, that's all I can say but it just wasn't my day," Sindhu told ANI after the match.
For 110 minutes, the badminton world stood still. "Mera toh petrol hi khatam ho gaya," were Saina Nehwal's words to Pullela Gopichand after watching the 110-minute epic. Okuhara and Sindhu had played in one of the best finals of the sport. Such was the determination of both the shuttlers, aged just 22. This was Sindhu vs Okuhara 2.0
While Sindhu uses her height to her advantage to attack and reach the shuttle faster, Okuhara is a classic rally player with the ability to retrieve swiftly. It was evident from how Sindhu hit straight smashes down the court in the final. On the other hand, Okuhara was defending everything that was thrown at her. The two had set the court alight after a long, long time. The one which you would see in a Lee Chong Wei-Lin Dan or a Saina Nehwal-Li Xuerei match. There was more to come from the duo.
Sindhu vs Okuhara 3.0
After the narrow loss in Glasgow, Sindhu must have looked back at her performance, with her coach Pullela Gopichand and analysed where she went wrong against the doughty Japanese.
Incidentally, just two weeks after the World Championships final, both Sindhu and Okuhara were slated to face once again in a final of a mega tournament, this time at the Korea Open Superseries in Seoul.
The tie had already left millions eagerly awaited for yet another humdinger of a clash. Many thought they were witnessing the early days of a fresh, mouth-watering rivalry.
Sindhu starts with a drop near the forecourt and Okuhara lifts it well to hit a clean return and the pattern continues. This is not just the way these two started, but also the way they went on throughout the match. While Sindhu attacked like a lion, Okuhara stood firm and retrieved all the shots like a wall.
They were no more exchanging shots across the net but trading blows, you could say it by their body language that they were no longer playing a final but warring. It was coming, another classic clash was on the cards.
Sindhu had taken the driver's seat in the final after coming back strongly from two game points to win the first game 22-20. Even after winning the neck-and-neck opening game, Sindhu knew it wasn't over yet. Okuhara, who started slow, found her rhythm to take a gigantic lead and never allowed the Indian a chance to fight back in the second game. And in no time, they were square again.
In the decider, Sindhu had an 11-5 advantage at the change of ends, but Okuhara narrowed the gap in a jiffy. The spectators had already lost the count on the number of 30-shot rallies these two had exchanged in the first two games. The gap came down to 15-13, 18-16 and here we saw a tiring, long 56-shot rally that again brought both the shuttlers to their knees. However, this time around, Sindhu managed to keep Okuhara at bay.
For the first time in Seoul, there was an Indian standing at the podium with a gold medal. Not only did Sindhu avenge the loss at worlds but by winning 22-20, 11-21, 20-18 in the second straight final against Okuhara, she had evened their head-to-head count to 4-4.
The key to World No 4's win on the night was the way she attacked even more in the final game to take Okuhara by surprise. Notably, Sindhu did try to unsettle the Japanese in the deciding game at the worlds with the same strategy but errors at the net cost her the elusive gold. Believe it or not, the last two matches allude to the fact that Sindhu and Okuhara could script a must-watch contest after a few potential rivalries that have fizzled out in recent times. However, by now, the two would have studied a lot about each other's style of play and would be eager to face off more often, making this growing rivalry even more interesting.
There have been a handful of rivalries between women's singles shuttlers in the recent past with the famous one being Saina vs China (Wang Shixian, Li Xuerei, and Wang Yihan) including one with Spanish ace Carolina Marin. After the 2016 Olympics, it was between Marin and Sindhu, who have furthermore expressed the mutual respect they have for each other to the world. But all of them were short-lived. However, the one between the lanky Sindhu and the diminutive Okuhara have shown signs of what could just be the beginning of a fresh, and more importantly, long-lasting rivalry.
What adds to this growing rivalry is that since their first meeting back in the 2012 Badminton Asia Youth U-19 Championships, seven out of their eight matches have gone into the deciding game. At 22, their results have proved how far they have reached already.
Interestingly, the duo is set to lock horns for the third time in three weeks on Thursday in the second round of the Japan Open Superseries in Tokyo. Despite winning the World Championships and claiming silver in Korea, Okuhara is unseeded and that's why she has been pitted against Sindhu quite early in the competition. However, the Japanese will be eager to respond after the narrow defeat in Seoul against Sindhu in her own backyard, while the Indian fancies yet another title success at a Superseries event. Another Sindhu vs Okuhara showdown awaits!
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Updated Date: Sep 21, 2017 11:28:36 IST