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Saturday, September 18, 2021

Tokyo 2020: PV Sindhu in semi-finals after quelling Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi

PV Sindhu showed outstanding proficiency in both her defense and dominating rallies, to march into the semi-final of the Tokyo Olympics with a 21-13, 22-20 quelling of the world number five.

Written by Shivani Naik | Tokyo |
Updated: August 1, 2021 12:38:22 pm
PV Sindhu, PV Sindhu beat Japanese, PV Sindhu in Semifinals, PV Sindhu beats Japanese Akane Yamaguchi,India's Pusarla V. Sindhu celebrates after wining against Japan's Akane Yamaguchi during their women's singles badminton quarterfinal match at the 2020 Summer Olympics (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

PV Sindhu had answers to every single poser thrown at her by Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi, even a 54-shot rally that went the other way.

The Indian showed outstanding proficiency in both her defense and dominating rallies, to march into the semifinal of the Tokyo Olympics at Musashino Forest plaza on Friday with a 21-13, 22-20 quelling of the World No.5.

The chinks in Sindhu’s armour existed only in Yamaguchi’s old notes from dossiers that needed dusting. For facing her in the quarters was a refined opponent, whose defense had more than just stubbornness. And whose attack came from the forecourt just as blithely as her blitz from the back. Sindhu has never shied from long rallies but she showed her scorn for their length. It was Yamaguchi in fact who spent most of the match running around, a tad aimlessly.

This was Sindhu knowing exactly what was needed to be done, and having the armoury to execute this heist to end Japan’s challenge.

The strokes flowed naturally from Sindhu – the straight smashes to attack the high serve, the fiercer ones to pounce on Yamaguchi’s short lifts.

Sindhu had the charging followup at the net to the set up smash, and overhead slice which she summoned at the crucial 21-20 juncture in the second set.

In the opener, Yamaguchi relied excessively on trying to win the battle at the net, where she was seamless, but to her surprise, Sindhu was up for the challenge. It’s a new confidence witnessed in Sindhu, post-pandemic.

While she had nicked the All England quarters out of Yamaguchi earlier this year on a nervous kill, this was a completely transformed Indian at the net, unafraid of the dribble debate the Japanese wanted to draw her into.

The first long rally – a staple when these two play came at 6-6, though the high pace was visible from Point 1 itself. As if she was playing a pre-pandemic Sindhu, Yamaguchi tried the body attack which worked only on the first point and never again. She baited the Indian on the backhand – which earned her two early points but not again. And she persisted at the net despite evidence of Sindhu’s comfort playing there being contrary to whatever she had planned ahead.

Sindhu, meanwhile, revelled in the net dribbles, even crossing once cleverly for a winner, and glided back into position for her crosscourt drops to start whirring again. What she was attempting even as Yamaguchi fixated on the net was to push her to the far backcourt corner from where the Japanese couldn’t return to wrench back the rallies.

The second set got tight. Prone to slackening a tad when she has the advantage, there was a 12 point period when Yamaguchi tried to swing the momentum, opening up the court and drawing tired returns from the Indian.

But the Japanese ought to know by now Sindhu doesn’t tire for good. So after the monster 54-shot rally which had high quality badminton shots – not mere scrambles – the Japanese milked the exertion to take 11 of the next 12 points. Yamaguchi had ended that mammoth exchange with a round the head smash and forced Sindhu to hit higher looking to work her shoulders.

It worked briefly as well. Two smashes went into the net. After a string of prolonged points, Yamaguchi took the lead at 17-16 and pushed for a decider at 20-18. But just like All England, another upset plotted by coach Park and executed to perfection by Sindhu, this time as well Yamaguchi wilted when she was tasked to finish off.

Sindhu is a beast at the clutch. And a down-the-line and a fiery followup at net helped Sindhu level at 20-all. From there, Yamaguchi knew her impending fate. Beaten at the tape, once again.

Is Sindhu prepared for Tai to not crumble?

The thumb-rule when facing Tai Tzu Ying – PV Sindhu’s semifinal opponent at the Tokyo Olympics – is to be prepared for the one shot that comes straight, and also be ready for the sizzling crosscourt. Gunning for her second straight Olympic medal after four commanding wins this week, Sindhu should also be prepared for the best Tai and the worst Tai – whoever shows up.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Sindhu is the favourite for this game to decide the Tokyo 2020 finalist. The Indian has beaten Tai at every big event – Rio 2016, Basel 2019, Tour Finals 2018. Playing her first semi-final, Tai is vulnerable.

Having played a wringer of a quarter-final match, out-thinking and expending energy downing Ratchanok, Tai’s fitness will not exactly show a 100 percent battery charge. And to top everything, Sindhu’s armoury of strokes has expanded multi-fold in the pandemic. This Olympics has shown that she outrageously drags shuttles from behind her shoulder on the forehand and packs them off cross — the rarity of the stroke can confound opponents who have her marked merely as a tall, strong, firing machine sending steep smashes down-the-line. Sindhu’s fortified defense will demand added sighters for deception.

Back to back Olympics are about evolution. Even Lin Dan completely revamped from 2008 to 2012. And it’ll be naive to think, Tai can be rattled like she was with speed and power at Rio Olympics. Or that she will disintegrate into a puddle because the big tournament is always Sindhu’s stomping ground. Pushing back against Ratchanok, Tai showed immense character to fight back.

The 54-shot rally against Yamaguchi didn’t hurt Sindhu on its own. But the subsequent points – that scary Sindhu lull that appears a few points after the second-set interval – are her tunnel that the Indian often drives blind into, hoping there’ll be light at some point. These second set stutters against a better player, like Tai, can prove costly.

While Sindhu’s formidable finishing has indicated she’s in supreme physical shape, Tai Tzu Ying can drain energy plus not give you time to realise your reserves are flagging. Tai’s net pushes to Sindhu’s backhand will be certainly sharper than what the Japanese floated optimistically.

Speaking to BWF after beating Ratchanok, Tai had said, “I did a lot of preparation before the match and tried to catch each shuttle. I told myself not to give up and I have to try to get every point. Tomorrow I will do my best to defend because Sindhu will be tough.”

Tai is prepared for the role reversal. Where she defends Sindhu’s impressive attack. Where she absorbs the pressure. Where Sindhu unveils strokes that are a surprise. Where the Indian dares her at the net. Where getting tired is accounted for.

Question remains: Is Sindhu prepared for Tai to not crumble in the big match?

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