India’s World No 3, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, did not divert from the script one little bit. Her previous five encounters against Japanese World Champion Nozomi Okuhara had ended in alternate victories for the two shuttlers, with the Indian winning their most recent encounter at the All England championships, four months back.
With the head-to-head count at 5-5, it was the fourth-seeded World No 8 Okuhara’s “turn” to win the eleventh match between them and it seemed that second-seeded Sindhu very graciously allowed her Japanese rival to pocket the $26,250 Thailand Open badminton championships.
Sindhu’s docile 50-minute 15-21, 18-21 submission handed Okuhara the title on Sunday at the Nimibutr Stadium in Bangkok.
If this foregoing sounds somewhat cynical, let it be said that the women’s singles final went on entirely expected lines. The dice were really loaded in favour of the Japanese ace, even as Sindhu stoically laboured along in the face of a number of odds stacked against her.
First, albeit least important, was the historical perspective explained above, between these two evenly-matched rivals. Then, there was the key issue of the form of the two gladiators, going into the summit clash.
In the penultimate reckoning, Okuhara, now fully recovered from her recent injury problems, had easily accounted for American Zhang Beiwen, who had narrowly defeated the World No 2 and top seed, Akane Yamaguchi, in the quarter-finals.
Sindhu, on the other hand, had fought over three games to subdue the effervescent Indonesian teenager, Gregoria Mariska Tunjung, in the semi-finals on Saturday.
In fact, the Olympic silver medallist’s performances in the three competitions she has thus far played on the South-East Asian circuit of the newly instituted World Tour have been far from encouraging. She did well in the Malaysia Open extending World No 1 Tai Tzu Ying to three games in the semi-finals, but then went down in the quarter-finals of the prestigious Indonesia Open to Chinese left-hander, He Bingjiao.
The Indian did not exactly toil against her initial three opponents in Bangkok — Linda Zetchiri of Bulgaria, Yip Pui Yin of Hong Kong and Soniia Cheah of Malaysia — but neither did she put in a commanding performance going into the semi-finals. She was hauled over the coals by Tunjung in the round of four, and kept her supporters on tenterhooks until 8-all in the deciding game before calling on all her experience to subdue last year’s junior World Champion.
It is hard to tell whether Sindhu has fully recovered from the unspecified injury that had kept her out of India’s Uber Cup team that had played in Bangkok in May this year. But the fact that she played three tournaments in successive weeks, without showing any signs of physical distress, indicates that she is reasonably fit.
However, Sindhu appears a half-step slower than when she played the All England in March, and she is not anywhere near as aggressive as she was in Birmingham. Her full-blooded smashes were far more sparse, and she followed up her smash to the net to kill off the blocked return on just one occasion in the entire encounter.
Again, Okuhara was much more fleet-footed on the day than her Indian opponent, an attribute that assisted her netplay immensely. Her work at the net was immaculate, and the Indian was unable to get any cheap points by tapping the bird off even a slightly elevated dribble. Most of the time, she was reduced to clearing the shuttle from the net, allowing Okuhara to assume control of the rally.
Then there is the matter of support staff. Sindhu’s mentor, Pullela Gopichand, left her fortunes in Bangkok in the hands of junior coach Amrish Shinde, while Okuhara had the wily Korean former world and Olympic doubles champion, Park Joo Bong, available to her during the game and mid-game intervals to guide her on strategy.
How vital Park’s inputs would have been can be gauged from the fact that Okuhara, normally a stonewaller who revels in the longer rallies and lets her superior stamina weigh in the balance, was much more aggressive on Sunday throughout the match; and never more so than in the closing reaches of the tussle, when scores were running neck-and-neck. She literally caught Sindhu flat-footed and napping with speedy movements and a series of body smashes in the last half-dozen points.
Okuhara was the superior player on Sunday in all departments of the game, and it is important to note that the World Champion’s triumph was not unexpected. But let us also take heart from the fact that it will be the turn of the Indian, now down 5-6 in their quixotic 11-match head-to-heads, to win their next joust.
Okuhara’s triumph over Sindhu in the last final of the day allowed Japan to complete a singles one-two, and end up with three of the four titles the country was contesting on the final day. The ebullient Kanta Tsuneyama, ranked World No 33, out-thought, out-sped and outlasted his redoubtable World No 15 Indonesian rival for a richly deserved 21-16, 13-21, 21-9 victory in two minutes shy of the hour mark.
The 22-year-old Tsuneyama, who has a winsome personality and appears to thoroughly enjoy the game, had narrowly edged out the 23rd ranked Kazumasa Sakai from one of the three singles berths in the country’s last Thomas Cup series; and he showed that Park’s assessment of his potential was spot on by repeatedly tearing deep rents in Sugiarto’s famed defence with searing smashes on both flanks.
The Indonesian was marginally slower on his feet than Tsuneyama and simply laboured along in the dust stirred up by the latter’s keds in the deciding game of their title clash.
Japan’s third title came in the form of a close-fought 21-17, 21-19 win for top-ranked Takeshi Kamura and Keigo Sonoda, over their unseeded compatriots, Hiroyuki Endo and Yuta Watanabe, but the Land of the Rising Sun missed a fourth crown when their top women’s doubles pair of Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo had a distinctly forgettable day at the office when going down at 13-21, 10-21 to the fast-rising Indonesian duo of Apriyani Rahayu and Greysia Polii, seeded one spot behind them.
Nor was there any element of fight in the mixed doubles final, in which the No 8 seeds, Hafiz Faizal and Gloria Emmanuelle Widjaja lowered the colours of the top-seeded English husband-and-wife pair of Chris and Gabrielle Adcock at 21-12, 21-12 in the most disappointing final of the day, lasting two minutes short of the half-hour mark.
Updated Date: Jul 16, 2018 08:13:52 IST