It was 20-19 to Saina Nehwal, a game point to level the match at one game apiece. One would have expected a lung-busting rally to decide the game, but she hit her serve into the net, just reflecting the pressure the two protagonists were under. Big matches turn on such small incidents. And this one did. PV Sindhu won the next two points – with a clear that landed on the backline and a straight smash winner – to seal a semifinal spot in the Yonex-Sunrise India Open with a 21-16, 22-20 victory and firmly establish herself as the undisputed queen on Indian courts at the moment.
Sindhu will take on Korean Sung Ji Hyun in the semifinals on Saturday, after the Korean ended the title defence of Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon 21-16, 22-20 in a high-quality contest. Spain’s Carolina Marin will face Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi on the other side of the draw.
On a day when both Saina and Sindhu were all by themselves on the court, as no member of the Indian coaching staff could be seen taking sides in this high-stakes battle, it was all about bragging rights. Saina has done as much as anybody to raise badminton’s profile in India, but after her knee injury and Sindhu winning the silver medal at the Rio Olympics, the game has changed.
It could be seen in the curt handshakes between the two before and after the match, and the numerous fist pumps and roars coming from Sindhu’s side, not least after match point. “It is not that I have to win against her. It is definitely a good win, coming at a Super Series event. I try to play every match with the same intensity. It is nothing special against her (Saina). But fans and media are always talking about the Saina-Sindhu match,” is how Sindhu tried to underplay the significance of Friday’s 47-minute victory.
But her reaction on court suggested otherwise. To put matters in perspective, Sindhu, who was brusque in her interactions with the media throughout the week, was happy enough to engage with scribes and answer questions with a smile and in a relaxed manner after the victory. In contrast, Saina left the venue in no time.
Even the big crowd at the Siri Fort Sports Complex could not make up its mind on who it wanted to win. Chants of ‘Saina, Saina’ were followed by those of ‘Sindhu, Sindhu’ and then both together.
Both players were in scratchy form coming into the marquee clash, but raised their game for the big occasion. On the tactical side, while Sindhu tried to test Saina’s movement and flexibility by frequently trying to bring her forward, the London Olympics bronze medallist found success with several smashes straight at her opponent’s body.
The match started with neither player allowing the other to get too far ahead. It was only in the middle of the first game that Sindhu got the wind in her sails with a few angular smashes and helped by a few uncharacteristic Saina errors, built up an 18-12 lead, which was too big for the older player to bridge. A neat net shot sealed the first game and Sindhu celebrated with a big fist pump. Saina started the second game in aggressive fashion and carved out an 11-7 lead at the break, a deceptive drop shot at the net sealing the advantage. But Sindhu went on the offensive and Saina also helped her out with a few misses. The younger girl reduced the arrears to 15-16 with a big smash, and even though Saina inched closer to levelling the match, Sindhu never let her get out of sight.
When a backhand in the net from Sindhu put her 16-19 in arrears, a deciding game seemed in the offing. But two winners and a net error from Saina made it 19-all. A straight smash by the latter brought up game point, followed by the ‘brain fade’ of putting the serve in the net, allowing Sindhu to seal the deal. “Even when she was ahead in the second game, I had belief in myself that I could turn it around. When she put her serve in the net and it became 20-all, it was anybody’s game,” Sindhu said. Though there was no coach with the two players on the court, national coach Pullela Gopichand was in the stands at ground level, with Sindhu’s father PV 090Ramanna also in the crowd. With Saina leaving Gopi’s academy to train under Vimal Kumar, there was a subplot to the events in the middle.
“When two Indian players face off, we know there will be no coaches with us. We are used to it. But Gopi sir was there, and he could have shouted some instructions if he wanted to,” the victor said.