Like a well-mannered, punctual professional star cast, PV Sindhu and Nozomi Okuhara lined up for their latest enactment of David vs Goliath. Sindhu beat spirited Chinese southpaw He Bingjiao 21-10, 17-21, 21-16 while Okuhara rustled into the finals with one of the fastest 21-17, 21-18 shuffles against compatriot Akane Yamaguchi — 77 points rattled off in 38 minutes, uncharacteristic of the two Japanese long-rally lovers.
A rematch had fetched up at Seoul, as if the world had screamed ‘once more’. The trouble with the David-Goliath story, if seen from PV Sindhu’s perspective, was in being destined to be Goliath, the big bloke who would eventually lose.
The 22-year-old might know little about the part she played in the narrative of last month’s World Championship final as it played out in the Japanese media, but she was the doomed Goliath of the tale. Haruo Shikaya, leading badminton journalist from Japan remembers the key points the Japanese press harped upon the day after the epic final. Of course the country celebrated its first-ever singles world champion and first world champion in 40 years (they had women’s doubles champion in 1977), but the dominating theme was of beating the conqueror from a year ago at Rio.
“Nozomi got revenge after her loss in Rio because she had said she couldn’t do anything against Sindhu at the Olympics,” Shikaya says. It had been a bruising casting away of the Japanese in the semifinal, swatted away by a towering Sindhu who loomed large with her jump smashes and jump tosses. Okuhara would pick a worthy bronze, but both the shuttler and her fans had been scarred by how Sindhu’s booming attack, made lethal when she rose to her tallest smashing against the 5’1” opponent, reduced the Japanese challenge to a third place playoff a day before the finals.
At Glasgow, the proverbial Goliath was beaten. Shikaya narrates the tale as written by the gleeful victor. “Nozomi couldn’t even remember some rallies because she was so focused. So was her opponent. She admitted she was very tired after the second game. But during last half of rubber game, she suddenly felt she could do more. At the same time she realized Sindhu was more tired than Nozomi. So she thought she would not lose this match.”
Round 1 to Sindhu at Rio. Round 2 to Nozomi at Glasgow. Sunday brings Round 3 of this riveting rivalry to the world. The Korean Super Series final isn’t as high stakes as the global Majors. But the two 22-year-olds bring to the contest what an old-fashioned great rivalry must — immense anticipation. In India, Goliath needs to regain his formidable menace. Sindhu, quite simply needs to reprise Rio.
The 5’ 11” Hyderabadi would have thought of little else in the last few days but how the 1 hr 50 min final finished with her fatal tap at the net, giving the equally gritty Okuhara a glorious victory. No one can say Okuhara was lucky to win, though even the non-partisans will agree Sindhu was a tad unlucky to lose. Korea couldn’t have come sooner, as Indians sit tight in front of TV sets on Sunday, biting away nails. The face-off will be followed across the world with Glasgow still fresh in memories.
Coach Gopichand says, “It’s another final only.” He insists Sindhu had struggled to get any winners from jump smashes or jump tosses. “Maybe she was low on energy in Glasgow,” he added, raising a possibility of revisiting the Rio strategy once more.
While Okuhara remains the same earnest retriever who outlasted Sindhu through her skill — even if not necessarily a big smash kill — there is a distinct change in her confidence since Rio. While everyone watched her psyching herself up by talking to herself in the Glasgow final, it is her ability to wear pressure lightly that sets her apart from everyone.
She smiles plenty on court, is respectful towards the shuttle and had said after the Worlds final intriguingly that she perhaps won because she knew it wasn’t life-shattering had she lost.
She took to Twitter after the Korean semis saying “Rematch of the World Championship final. Let’s try and enjoy. Ready to the win..” (Sic). Her twitter DP meanwhile was her holding a giant naan sitting in front of a thali. Sindhu might do well to beat her relaxed best, and remember rushing to finish cost her a chunky 8 point lead in Set 2 against He Bingjiao. A rush of aggression didn’t much help her in the decisive two points at Glasgow. Reliving the blistering form of Rio might not be as easy as stepping into a scripted act, though she will be required to summon the same striking strategy.
Sindhu dominated much of the Glasgow exchanges as well, and former international Arvind Bhat believes there wasn’t much separating the two in the gritty epic. “Sindhu could have gone to Okuhara’s forehand,” he says as a minor tweak in strategy, while Aparna Popat reckons variations combined with her height can effectively sting the Japanese if Sindhu makes her height count.
The Indian’s speed has been reliable in pulling away for big leads, though any drop in pace sees opponents jump at the lull. “Controlled aggression has worked for her and helped her get out of the second set dip when He played good half smashes.
She needs to stay positive,” said courtside coach Amrish Shinde. “I haven’t had much break since winning the World championship,” Okuhara told BWF. “I wasn’t sure of my physical condition when I arrived. I just took it match by match. Tomorrow I have a chance to win my third straight title after Australia and the Worlds,” she said.
Okuhara isn’t tall, but her strength is her reach owing to court coverage – her lunges at the net with super leg strength aid her retrieving. On super Sunday, amongst every other battle will be the one of Nozomis leg speed vs Sindhu’s hand speed. At one win apiece in biggies, the two have traded tags of David and Goliath. Only the very adventurous would venture naming their favourites in this one.
Korea Super series, live on Star Sports 2 — 7:30 am