By rights, supporters of Indian badminton should have had their first-ever world champion in their midst in August last year. Pusarla Venkata Sindhu stood at 20-all in the third and deciding game of her 2017 World Championship final against the pint-sized Japanese, Nozomi Okuhara; and needed only a brace of points to be eligible for the topmost rung of the victory rostrum and the gold medal.
Sadly, it was not to be. At the end of a titanic 110-minute contest that has gone down in the annals of the game as one of the greatest shuttle battles of all time, Okuhara shredded the aspirations of millions of Indian badminton lovers by pipping her rival by a 21-19, 20-22, 22-20 scoreline, to annex the women’s singles world title; and, in the process, to become the first Japanese player, male or female, to bag the ultimate prize in the sport.
Just a single instance can serve to illustrate the demands that both combatants made on their bodies and minds. After they had been indulging for nearly 70 minutes in a tug-of-war on pretty even terms, and had approached the final reaches of the second game, there was an incredible 73-stroke rally that saw 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.
It was a miracle that both girls actually managed to remain on their feet at the end of that mind-blowing contest, and did not have to be stretchered off the court. No player could possibly have given more in the match than these two gladiators did, summoning reserves that they would not even have known existed in their slim frames. It was so unfair that there had to be a loser at the end of such a contest!
For Sindhu, that silver medal in Glasgow was the culmination of four years of consistently excellent performances that had netted her two World Championship bronze medals in 2013 and 2014, and the 2016 Olympic Games silver. Even at Rio, Dame Luck had played a villainous role in preventing her from moving one step up, and away from her image as the perennial runner-up in key contests.
So what is the state of her form, going into the World Championships? She has been distinctly up and down in the first half of the year, blowing hot and cold in successive tournaments in a most unpredictable manner. At the recent South East Asian circuit of four competitions in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore, Sindhu revealed that she was in good enough nick to reach the final of the prestigious Indonesia Open, where she stretched the World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, to three games.
Tai, it must be remembered, has been beaten just once (by Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon, at 22-24 in the decider) in six tournaments this year, and remains in raging hot form. Sindhu’s form showed a minor dip at the Thailand Open that followed the Jakarta tournament — she looked a half-step slower than usual and lost in straight games to Japan’s Okuhara.
As the Hyderabadi prepares to take the court in Nanjing on Tuesday for her lung-opener against the winner of Monday’s clash between Indonesia’s Fitriani Fitriani and Bulgarian Linda Zetchiri, she will no doubt reflect on the fates that have handed her a potential quarter-final against her conqueror in Glasgow by that wafer-thin margin.
But first, to take in chronological sequence, her expected route to that quarter-final. After an opening-round bye comes the clash against either Fitriani or Zetchiri, neither of whom would hold any terrors for the third-seeded Indian ace.
Sindhu holds a 2-0 career head-to-head lead over the Bulgarian, whose challenge she had demolished with consummate ease in the India Open and Thailand Open this year. She is 4-0 up against Fitriani, having notched up her most recent win over the Indonesian in the team event of the Badminton Asia Championships in April this year.
Then comes a potentially tough challenge — the third round against the No 9 seed, Sung Ji Hyun of South Korea. Although Sindhu boasts a 7-5 lead in their dozen career meetings, she would be concerned to recall that Sung has beaten her in two of their last three encounters, including a straight-games thumping in the individual event of the Badminton Asia Championships.
If the Indian plays to her true potential, she should get past Sung to set up a quarter-final meeting with defending champion Okuhara, who has a slim 6-5 lead in their head-to-heads, and a victory to her name in their most recent tussle at the Thailand Open, earlier this month.
The strange and inexplicable pattern that has emerged from their duels is that the two have been winning alternately on the last six occasions, crammed into the past 15 months since the Singapore Open in April 2017. A win by either player is promptly reversed at their subsequent meeting.
If this pattern holds true, it would be Sindhu’s “turn” to win their bout in Nanjing, and progress to the semi-final, where her opponent would likely be one from amongst four seeded players in the fourth quarter of the draw — Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi (No 2), China’s Chen Yufei (No 5), Thailand’s Nitchaon Jindapol (No 11) and Hong Kong’s Cheung Ngan Yi (No 16).
What the draw has fortuitously done is to insulate Sindhu from a meeting with the raging hot title favourite, Tai Tzu Ying, before the final. Tai has gained a mental stranglehold over the Indian, and leads their rivalry 9-3, with an unbroken string of victories in their past five meetings. The last time that Sindhu beat Tai was at the quarter-final stage of the 2016 Rio Olympics.
In such a long tournament as the World Championship, and in a tough 64-player draw, anything can happen before the closing stages of the competition are reached. If Sindhu can concentrate of staying healthy and injury-free, and gradually gather steam as she goes along, she would be quite capable of fulfilling her recent well-publicised boast that she is not afraid of Tai, and will beat her when the two clash next… For what can only be the gold medal and the accolade of 2018 world champion.
Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.
Updated Date: Jul 30, 2018 10:07:09 IST