You simply have to hand it to Olympic champion Carolina Marin! The granite set of the chin and the fierce glint in the eyes provide an inkling of the almost fanatical determination to be the best that characterises the 26-year-old Spaniard.
Eight months after suffering a dreadful anterior cruciate ligament tear in her right knee, which required reconstructive surgery, the Spanish left-hander returned to the badminton courts; and, in only the second tournament after rejoining the circuit, the China Open in Changzhou, managed to win five rounds in succession to successfully defend the crown she had bagged last year.
There was nothing fluky in the manner of Marin’s triumph. Starting from an unseeded position (since, during her lengthy absence, she had dropped to 26th in the Badminton World Federation rankings) with a straight-games triumph against the 2017 world champion and No 4 seed, Nozomi Okuhara of Japan, she breezed past the redoubtable Chinese-American, Beiwen Zhang, also in straight games.
She was dragged over the full distance by both the seventh-seeded Chinese left-hander, He Bingjiao, in the quarter-finals, and the Japanese southpaw, Sayaka Takahashi, who had earlier claimed the scalp of the 2013 world champion, Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand. And in the final, she fought like a demented tigress to peg back the guileful challenge of long-standing former World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, despite losing the opening game, for a 14-21, 21-17, 21-18 victory.
“The wind on the court was coming from a different direction compared to the past few days; and I made quick adjustments at the start of the match, but towards the end, she played at a very fast pace, and I also made many unforced errors,” Tai said, subsequently heaping fulsome praise on her arch-rival, whom she had beaten on the previous six occasions that the two had clashed.
“I have to admit that she played very well today. I think there’s not much difference; she is still very fast. I also feel that she is more skillful now. In addition, I noticed that she maintained her speed in every match. She is much better at the net than before, and has more variety of shots.”
Marin’s amazing resurgence — her myriad fans all over the world have been treated to videos of her hitting scores of shuttles from a sitting position on the court with her right leg still in plaster, a few days after her surgery — spells bad news for recently-crowned world champion PV Sindhu’s chances of converting the colour of her Olympic medal from silver at Rio 2016 into gold at Tokyo next year.
No female player in the course of the past decade has revealed that irresistible combination of class, determination, temperament, footspeed and repertoire of strokes that the Spaniard has shown while winning three World Championships (in 2014, 2015 and 2018) and the most recent Olympic gold medal in 2016.
Sindhu has suffered at Marin’s hands at Rio in 2016 and in Nanjing last year, while it was another Indian, Saina Nehwal, who felt the Spanish left-hander’s wrath in the 2015 World Championship final. Over-all, the 24-year-old Sindhu trails Marin 6-8 in 14 career meetings, and has lost two of their last three clashes in the period between 29 June, 2018 and 25 January, 2019, two days before Marin suffered the knee injury in the Indonesia Masters final against Saina.
It is hard to find a parallel to Marin in badminton history. Saina comes closest to showing an impressive level of recovery after a similar reconstructive knee surgery, and returning to the courts to win further laurels. But her post-surgery titles have not come at the World Championship level; she has won only the 2018 Commonwealth Games gold on Australia’s Gold Coast and the title at the Indonesian Masters in January this year, when Marin was forced to retire injured while leading 10-4 in the first game.
The 2012 London Olympics gold medallist, Li Xuerui of China, incurred a knee injury at the 2016 Olympics that was virtually identical to those suffered by Marin and Saina. She took almost two years to return to the international circuit, but has never looked like the fleet-footed world-beater of old. While her arsenal of strokes remains intact, it is her footspeed that has been adversely affected, and also her staying powers.
Sindhu, sporting a four-year age advantage over Li, beat her opponent with a degree of comfort in their opening-round encounter at the just-concluded China Open. The 28-year-old Chinese star’s results in tournaments since her return have not been at anywhere near the level they were before she suffered the knee injury; and she is unlikely to be a major contender for the 2020 Olympic gold.
“I think it would be fair to say that Sindhu would be one of the big contenders for the gold medal in Tokyo,” says Dronacharya Award winning coach, Pullela Gopichand, at whose academy in Gachibowli, Hyderabad, Sindhu trains. “But having said that, there is competition, and it just gets more for Sindhu because she will henceforth be the target; people have a year to plan against her.
“I think a lot of players, like reigning Olympic champion Carolina Marin, Tai Tzu-Ying, Ratchanok Intanon, the Chinese and Japanese girls will provide competition, and it would be disrespectful to write off such competition. So, of course, Sindhu needs to train, she needs to evolve, she needs to add new thinking to her armoury; and that’s very important.”
In addition to the women identified by the Indian national coach as threats to Sindhu (and these include Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi and Okuhara, who will have home advantage in Tokyo, and China’s Chen Yufei), there are the young Turks like South Korea’s hugely talented An Se Young, China’s Gao Fangjie, Thailand’s Pornpawee Chochuwong and Nitchaon Jindapol, and Indonesia’s Gregoria Mariska Tunjung, who would be gunning for Olympic glory.
Sindhu was literally in the zone during the concluding rounds of the recent World Championships. To be honest, that kind of form comes to an athlete once or twice in an entire lifetime. However exceptional a shuttler she may be, and accepted that she is undoubtedly a big-tournament player, Sindhu will find it an imposing task to replicate in Tokyo the kind of form that held out against the deception and guile of Tai Tzu Ying, and then totally destroyed the likes of Yufei and Okuhara — all on successive days, in Basel.
The Indian’s chances in Tokyo will rest on a couple of crucial factors — continuing to work under the guidance of South Korean coach Kim Ji Hyun, all the way to August 2020; and going in for high-intensity physical training in the final month before the Games. If this training is anything like the strenuous and highly risky workout that she undertook in the run-up to Basel, she will have to concentrate hard on remaining healthy and injury-free, and to be managed with kid gloves.
Few hours after the article was published the unfortunate news that coach Kim had resigned her position at the Gopichand Academy for “personal reasons”, and that she would not be returning to India. It is understood that the Korean will remain in New Zealand, where she has been domiciled for several years, in order to nurse her ailing husband, who is said to require at least six months to recover. This is really a body blow for Sindhu, for she had come to rely on Kim’s guidance in recent months.
There is every likelihood that the Indian world champion’s performances in the middling and lower level World Tour tournaments, in the lead up to the 2020 Olympics, will continue to be patchy, however much her fans and supporters would like her to be an all-conquering force.
One identifies Sindhu as a player who can train her full focus on a particular objective in the short term, but who is unable to produce a prolonged run of top-notch performances like a Roger Federer or a Rafael Nadal; or, in today’s badminton firmament, like a Kento Momota or a rejuvenated Marin.
Prepare, therefore, to see this racehorse coast along over the next ten months without too many noteworthy performances; and then, if free of injury, put in that devastating closing gallop down the straight that would take her past the coveted winning post in Tokyo.
Editor's note: The piece has been updated since the news of PV Sindhu's coach Kim Ji Hyun's resignation have emerged
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Updated Date: Sep 24, 2019 13:07:17 IST