It was truly a golden moment in the annals of Indian badminton, a moment that made the heart of every sports lover in the country swell with pride and admiration.
When, at the end of a titanic, 83-minute cut-and-thrust battle, the narrowly vanquished Pusarla Venkata Sindhu crossed the court to lift to her feet a tearful world, European — and now, Olympic — champion Carolina Marin, and give her a warm congratulatory hug, the entire world stood and lustily applauded the wonderful sporting gesture by the 21-year-old Indian.
No matter that Sindhu had just been at the wrong end of a 19-21, 21-12, 21-15 verdict, that had secured for the 23-year-old Spanish left-hander the ultimate prize in sport, and made her the first European woman to bag the coveted gold medal since badminton was brought into the Olympic fold at the ’92 Barcelona Games, one year before the birth of the mercurial Marin.
The magnificent battle that Sindhu waged in the face of monumental odds against a clearly superior and more accomplished opponent, obdurately refusing to throw in the towel for nearly an hour-and-a-half, and the grace with which she eventually accepted defeat, won her the admiration of everyone gathered at the Riocentro Pavilhao to witness the summit clash.
It was a display couched in the highest traditions of sportsmanship: Play the game hard, play the game fair, ask or give no quarter, put in every ounce of effort, blood, toil, tears and sweat; but, at the end of it all, shake your rival's hand warmly and acknowledge that it had been a sporting encounter, not a war. For all the qualities that Sindhu displayed on Friday, her silver medal was worth its weight in gold.
During the initial exchanges of the final, there had been little to suggest that the match would scale the heights it eventually did. From the Indian supporters' point of view, the portents were depressing, as Marin revealed a dazzling turn of speed, control and deception to barrel into an 8-4 lead.
As TV commentator Gillian Clarke cannily remarked, the two antagonists had originally come to Rio with slightly differing objectives — Marin to get nothing but gold, Sindhu to settle for a medal of any colour — and this mindset showed in the manner in which they approached their matches. There was certainly far more conviction in the way Marin set about her task than there was in Sindhu's mien.
For most of the first half of the opening game, the Indian was unable to keep pace with the Spaniard, and her own yelps of self-encouragement were nowhere near the decibel levels of Marin's manic screams, celebrating every point won. The world champion has admitted in an interview that her screams are calculated to intimidate the opponent as much as to gee herself on; and she refused to hold back in the exercise of her vocal chords.
The top seed's overhead strokes from the backcourt were hard to read, and her slices and drops were executed with millimetric precision. In fact, the gulf in class between the two rivals, in both strokemaking and rally construction, was apparent throughout the match, as it was Marin who dictated the pace and trend of the rallies and made all the running, while Sindhu was restricted to a purely reactive role, scrambling all over the court just to keep the bird in play.
Marin was also able to control the sideways drift in the stadium better than Sindhu, who kept hitting wide of the sidelines on the opposite court and was herself found wanting in line judgment. Going into the break with an 11-6 advantage, the Spaniard went further ahead to 12-7 before being pulled up by the umpire for a net infringement as she executed a lightning tap, only to bump into the net before the shuttle was dead.
The slight discomfiture that Marin experienced affected her concentration a little, and Sindhu was able to narrow the gap to 10-13 and 13-16. A service fault called against the No 1 seed for a flick serve above the waist gave Sindhu the chance of snapping at her rival's heels at 15-16 and then 16-17. Then, with some outstanding dribbling at the net, the Spaniard powered to 19-16.
It was here that the course of the match changed. In her anxiety to finish the game, Marin committed three consecutive unforced errors at the net to allow Sindhu to draw level at 19-all. That break in the world champion's concentration was sufficient for the determined Indian to annex the first game, with the final five points coming in an unbroken reel.
Stung by the reverse, a livid Marin upped the ante in the second game to barge into a 5-0 lead, which she duly enlarged to 11-2 at the break. The Spaniard went on mounting the pressure, and a somewhat leg-weary Sindhu found it hard to keep up. Despite a brief revival to 6-13 after the break, the Indian remained at the receiving end of most rallies, and eventually let the game go, to conserve her energies.
In the decider, Marin maintained the frenetic pace she had set from the start of the match, to jump to a 6-1 lead — and it appeared to be curtains for the Indian. But Sindhu showed she was made of sterner stuff as she closed to 4-7 and then 8-9 before leveling at 10-all.
There was virtually nothing separating the rivals at the change of ends, with Marin holding a slim 11-10 advantage, which she enlarged to 14-10. The Spaniard kept on trying to hustle Sindhu, who was reduced to desperate defending, merely to stay in each rally. The relentless pushing took its toll on Marin, who made a string of unforced errors to allow her opponent to close in to 14-16.
It was at this point that Sindhu missed a gilt-edged opportunity of drawing level. An unforced error at the net gave Marin an undeserved 17th point, and the top seed tightened her play immediately. Point by hard-won point, the Spaniard clawed her way to 20-14, and made sure of the gold for the loss of just one more point, before falling to the court on her face, her body wracked by sobs as the momentousness of what she had just achieved began to sink in.
Understandably, disappointment was writ large on Sindhu's face as she went to the chair umpire for the customary end-of-match handshake, and then to the other side of the court to congratulate Marin.
The subsequent interaction between the two women at the end of that memorable match marked the second time on Friday that the predominantly Brazilian crowd in the stadium, as well as millions of TV viewers across the globe, were witness to an act of heart-warming sportsmanship.
Earlier, they had watched two legendary rivals over the last decade, China's Lin Dan and Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei, share a warm embrace and words of mutual respect, and exchange sweaty T-shirts, at the end of their own magnificent joust that had ended in an epochal triumph for the popular Malaysian who had had to endure a string of heart-breaking losses at his arch-rival's hands over the years, including in the finals of the previous two Olympics.
It was hardly surprising to find in urban India, literally within minutes of the completion of the Homeric women's singles gold medal match, the hoisting of an ad of a popular butter brand proudly proclaiming "Sindhustan Hamara!"
Yes, Sindhu, with your never-say-die spirit, your sportsmanship, poise and dignity, you have made us proud to be known as your fellow-countrymen; and you have provided a fitting riposte to those who believed that you would return from Rio empty-handed, with nothing more than a clutch of selfies!
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Updated Date: Aug 20, 2016 09:50:45 IST