“I do not have any medal yet, so tomorrow we go for the gold.” Carolina Marin would smile sweetly like an assassin, and declare her intent to erase from the way everything that stands between her and a desperately coveted medal for the Spaniard. It happens to be Indian PV Sindhu, not just standing in the way, but standing tall and confident as one of the two best women’s singles players on show at the Rio Olympics.
They call her the ‘Girl Nadal’ in Spain. Left handed, ferocious and unrelenting on court, plenty of talent there, but also a lot of grit that has fetched her the last two World Championships, as she has summarily flattened the Chinese armada of badminton in the top-most finals.
Always predicted to line up for the final in Rio, Marin has a team headed by coach Fernando Rivas, a master strategist, in her corner. He dreamt of and demolished the Chinese challengers these last few years, but is known to allow Carolina (23 from Huelva in Spain) enough leeway to think for herself on court and in life.
Marin plays at a high pace, works up some wicked angles because she’s southpaw and can turn badminton a combative sport with the amount of belligerence she can put into her game at all times. There was a time she was winning everything in 2015, before she the wins stopped – presumably when she started training for the Olympics.
She was never in doubt of making it to the Olympics, and didn’t need to go through the rigour of two dozen tournaments to ensure she was definitely coming to Rio with a comfortable seeding. The only other World No 1 apart from the Chinese and Saina Nehwal of the last two years, Marin is considered the toughest opponent there is – the marked woman for anyone who wants to finish top.
And she’s not mentally fragile either.
As such, coach Gopichand almost presciently saw this final a year back when he got down to changing Sindhu’s body language on court, turning her from a mild mannered mid-table athlete into someone who learnt to roar on court, and celebrate every winner and kill shot.
Marin’s not just Nadal, she can also scream like Sharapova, something that has rattled most Asian opponents, but it’s the energy she feeds off which translates into a high-paced game with lethal smashes, though she’s not shorn of deception to go with the left handed strokes. At the net, from the baseline and mid court, Marin the world’s No 1 player, is a bulldozing machine who can use every trick in the game and of guile to win.
However, she is an encouraging 4-3 against Sindhu – the Indian’s last win coming last October in Denmark. Sindhu has beaten Marin at the Junior Worlds in 2010, and the unlikeliest of places – a Maldives International Challenge in three sets early in life. In seniors though, since they resumed playing in 2014, Marin’s improved exponentially – at Australia, at Lucknow’s Syed Modi and the 2014 Worlds. Sindhu has looked in the same blistering form as in Denmark last year when she stormed away until the final, though she lost in the last outing at Hong Kong where Marin won her last Super Series title.
Both share a common temperament on court, though Sindhu’s a new entrant to the bellicose club. Trouble for Sindhu is Marin is not mechanical like her last two opponents in quarters and semis. It’ll be tough because, Marin’s is not the same uni-dimensional game as the Chinese or Japanese whose general trajectory and gameplans and monotones can be predicted.
“They wont think too much, and aren’t upto the tactical level that Marin is,” says Aravind Bhat, former international who’s trained with both Sindhu and Marin (in Indian Badminton League) in the past. The Asians reply on momentum, while Carolina Marin is all variety and flair and combativeness and colour. And drama.
While the left hand is crucial, Marin also knows how to vary pace of the game, and is incredibly fit and primed for this final – which she believes is her’s to take. Sindhu has been in top form, but there will be a few gaps to exploit. Marin tends to pick points in a cluster, but she also loses them at a stretch. “Once she gets points, Sindhu should look to gather many. It is Marin’s weakness that she gives points at a stretch, and her patience drops quickly.”
Sindhu should not be playing loose or drowning in unforced errors at that juncture, immediately after she’s won one point. The knife will need to burrow deep once it’s in.
Sindhu has been playing at a good speed, though there were a fair share of errors in the semis and a few tired returns into the net, which makes recovery all-important. A few delaying techniques will need to be brought in if she has to win this game of chess with a shuttle-and-racquet.
She has a kick to her smash – a bit of turn and power, and fake, and deception. Against Okuhara, Sindhu played 80 percent of her shots on the Japanese girl’s backhand and the flat tosses might not be useless against Marin too. It will also be the fight between the world’s two greatest coaches. At 0-3 in the 2nd when Sindhu seemed to be flagging down, Gopichand pumped his chest telling her that she needed to step it up now. The 10 points followed that.
Marin had a big point to prove against Chinese Xuerui Li in the semis – and she said, “It was an emotional match because she was the reigning champ. I wanted to beat her and not see myself as less than her. I maintained a confident body language,” she would say.
Sindhu, as such, is a surprise package Rivas might not have planned deeply upon. “I want to give everything I have left to win this gold,” she would say. It will boil down to who’s not happy settling for silver.