The follow-up to sporting success in this country tends to be so single-mindedly celebratory, that Indians rarely get down to experiencing the wistfulness of the fighting struggles – the sighing drama and epic heartbreaks of failures. PT Usha at LA, heptathlete JJ Shobha at Athens, Bindra at Rio and the hockey team could evoke that loyalty on a no-medal day, but the country’s reaction to sporting results swings between extremes most days.
In this impatient binary of medal or nothing, there is no space for that battle in vain, no countenance of flaws and drawbacks of Indians. Somewhere between labelling Indian sportspersons the greatest one day and dissing them as nobodies the next, lies the bread and butter, 9-to-5 routine of an athlete.
Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu will teach India to look at sport in a way where it is commonplace to have good days and bad, where the same person can be ruthless some-days and rubbish on others. India’ll learn to cut the two badminton stars some slack after they’ve achieved much, given they fight with nerve-popping strain in every match the television beams into followers’ homes.
Friday brought two such losses from the Australian Super Series, even though the flavour of the season K Srikanth advanced to the semis beating compatriot B Sai Praneeth 25-23, 21-17.
PV Sindhu made the fatal error of celebrating a rally too early as she botched a match point against World No.1 Tai Tzu Ying going down 21-10, 20-22, 16-21. Then Saina Nehwal got too impetuous and gave China’s top current shuttler Sun Yu an almighty reprieve in the form of 7 straight rushed points – dollies really from leading three-fourth ways in the decider, going down 17-21, 21-10, 21-17.
Two losses that showed the frailty of champs, magnifying their Achilles heel, amplifying their dire desperation to win, two defeats that will dictate a return to drawing boards ahead of the World Championships in August.
Two fighters who were shown up for trying to squeeze sand too tight in a fist, only to watch it fall away as their weekend plans of winning a title were squashed away.
China’s Sun Yu ended on her knees, bawling away her relief, kissing the Sydney courts sentimentally after she downed Saina Nehwal in an over-hour long battle. The victory meant much after having gone down to the Indian the last 6 times – including twice in Australia. She maybe upwards of 6 feet, but such has been Nehwal’s stranglehold over the young Chinese that the Indian was considered an unassailable ascent.
Yihan Wang set a lot of store on overpowering Nehwal, as did Carolina Marin – not because the Indian hit the hardest or was the trickiest, but because her mental make-up is considered unbreakable on the circuit – never mind the head-to-heads. Saina’s not conquered till she’s actually conquered, and Sun Yu had seen it half a dozen times too many in her career to not celebrate and cry and exhale.
Through the quarterfinal match on Friday, she had been content to make Nehwal move around the court – cross and drops, forcing the lunge on the backhand forecourt. For one heart-stopping moment, Nehwal would drag her right ankle, lose balance and stumble back in the second game – rattling her a tad as she allowed the Chinese a chance to come back into the game after taking the opener by following the plan of the day.
Nehwal was reading the situation perfectly, telling her coaching team – P Kashyap joining in on the sidelines today – how her opponent was tiring, but testing her defense. On her part, Sun Yu was playing tactical games and treading the outer limits of legal gamesmanship, taking breaks whenever she needed.
Nehwal led 15-13 in the decider – but would get impatient from thereon. “I’m a little disappointed she was leading comfortably and then from her forehand she tried to hit through,” coach Vimal Kumar said. On a slow court, Nehwal attempted to rush through without varying her strokes or the pace.
It’s been a pattern since her comeback from injury – in fact. Setting herself for the final kill – before throwing it all away, attempting to finish too soon. “She needs to stay calm and break this pattern. It’ll be one of the things we’ll work on now,” the coach added.
Sun grabbed points in a flurry, as both the 27-year-old’s steep shots weren’t straight-and-down enough, and she was clearly over-playing at the net, pushing it too hard to the back of the court, allowing Sun the time to respond when short, snappy netplay was needed.
PV Sindhu was done in by Tai Tzu Ying’s assured conviction in her game. Frustrating the deceptive, free-hitting Tai is such an achievement that opponents seldom realise the frustration that creeps in when the script turns. Sindhu was dogged in her defense and used her strength and pacy rallies to hit out of trouble the way she had at the Olympics. But this Tai is made up of sterner stuff.
She would watch bemused as Sindhu fist pumped the end of a long rally that took her to 20-19 and match point. The Taipese would assert her class – straightaway, preying on Sindhu’s keenness to wrap up the game.
The Indian led 14-10, having managed to impose her attack. But that’s when every point that went Tai’s way began to chip at Sindhu’s confidence, and the top-ranked shuttler gobbled the next 10 points in a hurry. Sindhu’s body language was another giveaway: a helpless, questioning look towards the coaches, and worried glances at what Tai would do next. The deceptive genius was playing with the Indian’s head.
Tai Tzu Ying is not scheduled to play the World Championships – choosing the World University Games instead. But how Sindhu conquers the Tai Tzu demon (the Taipei wizard’s won the last 3 matches since Rio) will be one of Indian sport’s most exquisite tales to tell.