World Badminton Championships 2017: Nozomi Okuhara edged PV Sindhu in psychological battle to win titanic final

Pusarla Venkata Sindhu will wear the world badminton crown in the none-too-distant future – this can be said with full conviction. Only, the time is not quite ripe for that momentous occasion to take place.

At the end of a titanic 110-minute contest that will go down in the annals of the game as one of the greatest shuttle battles of all time, Japan’s pint-sized Nozomi Okuhara shredded the aspirations of millions of Indian badminton-lovers by pipping her gangling rival by a 21-19, 20-22, 22-20 scoreline, to annex the women’s singles gold medal at the 2017 World Badminton Championships in Glasgow.

In the process, the 22-year-old Nagano native became the first Japanese singles player, male or female, to bag the ultimate prize in the game, going two-up on bronze-medal winners Hiroe Yuki, at Malmo in 1977, and Minatsu Mitani, at Copenhagen in 2014, ironically the same year that Sindhu won her second consecutive bronze in the annual event.

Nozomi Okuhara edged PV Sindhu in an epic final battle at the 2017 World Badminton Championships. AP

Nozomi Okuhara edged PV Sindhu in an epic final battle at the 2017 World Badminton Championships. AP

Okuhara’s medal was Japan’s second-ever world championship gold, and came exactly four decades after the women’s doubles title won in the inaugural Worlds at Malmo in 1977 by the legendary Etsuko Takenaka-Taganoo and Emiko Ueno. There have been no medals of any hue for the Japanese in the men’s singles and doubles, and mixed doubles.

It was significant that Okuhara scaled the peak after beating, in quick succession, Carolina Marin, Saina Nehwal and P V Sindhu, the three women who, between them, had contested the finals of the two most important international badminton events in the past two years – the 2015 World Championships at Jakarta and the 2016 Olympics at Rio. That statistic would have cut short the validity of any argument that only luck had played a dominant role in the Japanese girl’s feat.

Sadly, India’s hunt for the yellow metal continues after silvers won in successive Worlds, by Saina Nehwal in 2015 and Sindhu at Glasgow on Sunday, to add to the bronze medals won by Prakash Padukone (at Copenhagen in 1983), the doubles duo of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa (at London in 2011), Sindhu (in 2013 and 2014), and now Saina (2017). The World Championships, incidentally, are not held in Olympic years.

Despite a somewhat deplorable lack of consistency, Sindhu has come on so much during the past 18 months, following her return from an injury lay-off, that she has barreled into the finals of the two most prestigious events in the course of the past year – the Rio Olympics in August 2016, and the just-concluded Worlds in Glasgow.

Unhappily, the Hyderabad-based Pullela Gopichand Academy trainee has failed to cross that final barrier, even after putting her heart, soul, mind and body – or, as Winston Churchill would have put it, blood, toil, tears and sweat – into the efforts to capture the top prize. She was thwarted at Rio by Spanish world champion Carolina Marin, after a humdinger of a final; and now at Glasgow, by Okuhara, after an even more amazing instance of unstoppable force meeting immovable object.

It is hard for even the most die-hard supporter of the sport to imagine the levels of physical and mental toughness that were required by the two antagonists to put together the performance they did on Sunday. The summit clash was the classic aggressor-defender battle, pitting the attacking skills of the Indian against the obdurate defensive technique of the Japanese, while demanding the levels of physical fitness that athletes very rarely reach during their lifetimes.

“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 BWF World Badminton Championships’ women’s singles gold medal, that has been in Spain’s possession since 2014, moves to India or Japan.” This is an excerpt from Firstpost's preview, and that is exactly what happened.

So hard was it to separate the two players that they seemed tied to each other by a common umbilicus, as they went about responding to their rival’s probing strokes to every corner of the court in an almost robotic manner, till one of them erred out of sheer exhaustion, rather than gained the point through a clean winner.

It was probably more taxing and tiring for the thousands of spectators cramming Glasgow’s Emirates Arena, and the millions around the globe watching the monumental contest on the idiot-box, as their own feet would have unconsciously attempted to replicate the court movements of the two gladiators battling it out remorselessly under the lights out in the arena’s centre.

Just a single instance can serve to illustrate the demands that both combatants made on their bodies. After they had been indulging for nearly 70 minutes in a tug-of-war on pretty even terms, the second game was won by Sindhu at the end of a 73-stroke rally that had seen both girls scurrying to all corners of the court, and that eventually brought them to their knees, desperately trying to force some air into their starving lungs.

Yet, neither of them was willing to concede an inch, bar taking a few seconds out to towel off and get their wits together before the next excruciatingly long rally. It was during one of these understandably frequent stops in the decider that Sindhu earned a yellow card for ‘repeated misbehaviour’ (read: time-wasting, or deliberately causing delay) from the substantially endowed Australian referee who, the Twitterati declared, would have found it impossible to reach even one-tenth of the levels of physical fitness that the two antagonists revealed.

Although it did not affect the outcome of the match, Sindhu would have realised that she was skating on very thin ice. The rules state that two yellow cards lead to a red card, which causes docking of points at the discretion of the referee from the offending player’s score; and even to a black card that means instant disqualification. Sindhu had received several warnings earlier for taking time off without justification, so it could not be said that the yellow card was issued without provocation.

Another point that the Indian needs to slot at the back of her mind was the difference in external attitude that the two players showed when they were truly exhausted, and required at least a short break to get their breath back. Okuhara was quick to shed outward evidence of distress, and was swift to return to the mark, whereas Sindhu was a picture of woe, her shoulders slumped, her eyes glassy. Perhaps it was on this point that the Japanese won the psychological battle.

Nevertheless, Sindhu can be proud of her performance in this tournament. Even though she almost exited the competition at the pre-quarter-final stage against Hong Kong’s Cheung Ngan Yi, she recovered quickly, and her game was fully switched on in the quarter-final against China’s Sun Yu and the semi-final against the current world junior champion, Chen Yufei.

The Indian only missed the gold by the proverbial whisker against an opponent who was her equal in all departments except height – they were both the same age and had an identical head-to-head win-loss record of 3-3, going into the World championship title clash. Being an aggressive player, rather than employing stonewalling tactics like Okuhara, Sindhu has every chance of scaling the heights before, or at, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Updated Date: Aug 28, 2017 16:33 PM

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