World Badminton Championships 2017 final: PV Sindhu looks to stop Nozomi Okuhara from avenging Olympic loss
On the debit side of Okuhara’s ledger are Sindhu’s height and reach, aggressive mien, greater power, a level of physical fitness superior to that of Saina Nehwal.
Sheer staying power, and the ability to play the entirety of the match with sustained speed – these will be the key elements that will decide whether the World Badminton Championships’ women’s singles gold medal, that has been in Spain’s possession since 2014, moves to India or Japan. For the yellow metal, either country will be a maiden destination.
With a commanding 21-13, 21-10 triumph over China’s 19-year-old reigning world junior champion, Chen Yufei, in the wee hours of Sunday morning, the world’s fifth-ranked player and India’s badminton queen-apparent, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, matched compatriot Saina Nehwal’s 2015 feat of reaching the women’s singles final.
Having had the mortification of having to make do with mere bronze medals at two previous World Championships, the 2016 Olympics silver medallist, Sindhu, has ensured that she has taken at least one step further this time than she had done at Guangzhou in 2013 and Copenhagen the following year.
Whether the fourth-seeded Indian can capture the coveted gold will depend substantially on the physical state of that tireless, five feet one inch (1.53 metres) tall Japanese dynamo, who had to wage an excruciating Homeric battle over 73 minutes before she could subdue the gallant Saina Nehwal, seeded five places below her at No 12, by a 12-21, 21-17, 21-10 scoreline.
In the process, the pint-sized Japanese girl managed to oust in successive rounds, the two women who had contested the last World Championship final at Jakarta in 2015. The seventh-seeded Nozomi Okuhara had worn down number three seed and defending champion Carolina Marin of Spain in an equally titanic quarter-final battle on Friday.
A major point in the Nagano native’s favour in her forthcoming final against Sindhu could well be the fact that she has been blessed with several more hours of recovery time than her rival. Okuhara got across the finishing line in the concluding match of the morning session at Glasgow’s Emirates Arena on Saturday, while Sindhu left the courts after her dominating performance against Chen, nearly eight hours later.
Just how precious those extra hours of recovery time can potentially be is illustrated by the manner in which a resurgent Saina, playing some of the best badminton of her career in the opening stanza of her semi-final duel against Okuhara, simply swept the Japanese girl off her feet in what was their eighth career meeting, with speed, aggression and an unsuspected variety of strokeplay, but could not maintain that intensity in the next two games.
Saina's display in the first game was notched up despite the fact that the Haryana-born, Bangalore-domiciled shuttler had had to come onto court within hours of winning a long-drawn, intensely physical quarter-final joust against home favourite Kirsty Gilmour on Friday night. There was scant recovery time, and insufficient resting time.
The challenge, for the Indian, was to maintain that opening-game level of speed and power through the course of the next game, and finish the match by the short route before the temperamentally strong Okuhara could get her bearings. Sadly, that did not happen, as the Indian conceded a large initial lead in the second; and had to labour hard to make up the leeway.
Saina did make up ground, but the effort required to restore parity at 17-all drained her limited resources, and induced a spate of errors in the closing reaches of the game. The Indian, who had led in head-to-head battles 6-1 before the Glasgow clash, was little more than a passenger in the decider.
Coach Vimal Kumar recaptured the key moments of the encounter thus: “Saina was really on top in the first game, and was playing freely. She was slightly slack in the beginning of the second, and that, to a certain extent, gave confidence to Okuhara. Saina managed well to equalise at 17, then again was guilty of playing loose and gifting away points which she should have pushed and converted. At that point of time, both were a little tired.
“In the third, Okuhara just retrieved well, and Saina clearly appeared out of breath. Okuhara recovered better from yesterday’s tough match against Carolina (Marin), whereas Saina’s recovery was not good after last night’s match against the Scottish girl (Gilmour). It was a tough loss for Saina, and I feel sad for her. But it was a really good match.”
Saina, on her part, revealed that she felt drained out from the middle of the second game, and attributed the lapse to her inability to recover in time, following the tough quarter-final against the home favourite the previous day. But she also conceded that the situation has been the same for Okuhara, who also finished her prolonged quarter-final against defending champion Marin late.
“After finishing my match against Gilmour so late, I had to have a session of physiotherapy and massage, and then have dinner,” Saina said. “By the time I went to bed, it was 1 am. This possibly could be the reason why I felt so drained out today, in the latter stages of my match against Okuhara.”
The 22-year-old Japanese girl, no doubt, had a five-year age advantage over the older Indian, though both had come back from serious career-threatening injuries, Saina as recently as late last year after undergoing knee surgery in the wake of the Rio Olympics. It is therefore a moot point whether the Indian should have used her resources better, and refrained from going hammer-and-tongs in the opener.
Okuhara, who became the first player from her country to enter the final of a World Badminton Championship in any event, has already bettered the bronze-winning record of compatriots Hiroe Yuki (at Malmo in 1977) and Minatsu Mitani (at Copenhagen in 2014), but will look to go the distance at Glasgow against Sindhu.
In the 2016 All England Super Series champion’s favour are her impressive staying power, her steadiness and length of stroke, her obdurate defence, the fact that she has had several hours more of resting and recuperating time than her rival, and Sindhu’s notorious inability to close out a match from a winning position.
On the debit side of Okuhara’s ledger are Sindhu’s height and reach, aggressive mien, greater power, a level of physical fitness superior to that of Saina, and the fact that the Indian has had two relatively quick, unextended matches in the quarter-finals (against China’s Sun Yu) and semi-finals (versus China’s Chen Yufei).
Sindhu, it must be underscored, maintained the rich vein of form against the reigning world junior champion Chen that she had struck in her quarter-final against another Chinese star, Sun Yu. Playing with great pace and sound positioning, the Hyderabadi used her 5 feet 11 inch (1.78 metres) height to shorten the length of her smashes and half-smashes. On a couple of occasions, she even used the leaped smash that, among the women, we have only seen Scotland’s Gilmour execute.
Given half a chance of settling into the match, Chen would no doubt have achieved some success in replicating the victory she had achieved in her most recent encounter with Sindhu, at the Malaysia Open Super Series Premier, in April this year. But the spike-haired Chinese was hustled constantly by the rangy Indian, and failed to stand up to the sustained pressure.
And so, on to the summit clash with Okuhara. The head-to-head record of the two antagonists could hardly be closer – they are locked at 3-3 after six career meetings. Sindhu has the advantage of having won their two most recent encounters – in the Rio Olympics in August 2016, and in the 2017 Singapore Open Super Series, four months ago. The latter victory, incidentally, was achieved by the skin of her teeth, by 22-20 in the deciding game.
That said, it must be mentioned that previous head-to-head records have not held much meaning at these World Championships. Denmark’s gentle giant Viktor Axelsen trailed China’s Chen Long 1-9 after their 10 career meetings, but simply decimated the defending champion in their semi-final in Glasgow on Saturday. Saina also had to eat humble pie after taking a 6-1 career advantage into her penultimate round clash against Okuhara.
It must also be said that Okuhara is playing much better at the moment than she was when she returned to the circuit in early 2016, after a prolonged injury layoff. She ended up with the bronze medal at Rio, losing without much of a fight by 19-21, 10-21 to the player she crosses swords with on Sunday. Sindhu will really have to be on her mettle to scoop in the gold.
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