Updated: July 28, 2021 6:39:36 pm
It might just become difficult from hereon for PV Sindhu, after her 21-9, 21-16 win over Hong Kong’s Cheung Ngan Yi, to contain the whiplash of expectations that will begin to bombard her in what is turning out to be a nightmarish Olympics for the Indian contingent at Tokyo.
It’s a bit like taking a 21-9 lead, switching court sides for the set you are expected to finish out, and finding the court drift leaving you tentative on high tosses dipping at the baseline.
The 11-10 second set quandary for Sindhu against Cheung in the last group game, is the crossroads that the Indian medal favourite will need to storm out of, like a bolting thoroughbred. And proceed from here into the business end of her Olympics without indecision at the lines – which gave the Hong Kong opponent a look-in briefly – and without the winds of pressure, bogging her down.
On Wednesday looking to book her knockouts slot, Sindhu, a Rio silver medallist did well to ramp up the aggression and hit through Cheung’s defiance.
In the Games Village where focus has centred on the shooters after the first affable silver of Mirabai Chanu, Sindhu, the world champion, might well start feeling the drilling of the expectant eyes of a restless contingent on her back.
It’s when coach Park Tae Sung and her parents from back in Hyderabad and friends will need to impress upon her, the need to grab that pressure by the collar and announce her intent to throttle it back into the box from where it’s threatening to escape from. She will need to stride out like a world champion, targeting Tokyo’s highest tower.
A tentative, defensive, doubting Sindhu has never quite cracked the code. Entering the knockouts is a good time to own up the tag of and internalize the feeling of being a champion-in-waiting. Starting with Mia Blichfeldt, a noisy Dane with heft in her game.
In her second pool game, Sindhu started strongly to race to a 21-9 lead in a quarter of an hour. It was in the first half of the second set that Cheung threw a few nuggets of nuisance Sindhu’s way. Not quite a tactical lapse, but her judgment on two points from the baseline and the fleetingest looks of concern towards coach Park betrayed a pitfall Sindhu would best avoid – of not smothering the shuttle hitting down and affixing the opponent to her backcourt.
While Sindhu was mixing her crosscourt drops nicely with the down the lines, the sixth-seeded Indian took a bit of time to counter, by using the high clears and fast attacking tosses to push Cheung back from the net where she was planning on a start of a rebellion.
“I found my rhythm from the second game on and I finished it off. It was a fast game and I made a couple of unforced errors. I changed tactics and got things under control. This type of game is important before a big match,” she said after the match.
Right when she reinforced herself with the aggressive skins, Sindhu would regain control and open up a lead from 14 onwards. The crosses were reassured and she sent Cheung scurrying to the backcourt while finishing at the net herself. But a pugnacious rival awaits.
“It’s not going to be an easy game. I need to recover well and come back stronger. I’ve played her a couple of times, every point will be important. She’s an aggressive player so I will be aggressive as well,” she said.
It is evident that a bunch of new strokes have given her a Plan B, since opponents, having read her big obvious game, tend to counter the powerplay with speed. Like, with the most imperceptible changes in the wrist, Sindhu can prime up for a big smash, but nuance it by sending back a drop, very close to the net.
Her game will explode when the striding to the net sharpens and she starts looming there like a ravenous beast — most suitable to quell Akane Yamaguchi. But even from the backcourt, Sindhu has collected arsenal in the lockdown training, to add a serious dimension to her holding attack. Switching gears to move to power-charge mode, will only need flicking on the switch.
However, she will need to gauge the lilting breeze right. “Can’t complain because it’s the same for everyone. But you have to learn to control the shuttle,” she stressed. Learn quickly too.
While the Indian has spent the last five years respectfully allowing opponents to get a word in – or a paragraph – it is the World Championship mode that she will need to turn on. Like Cheung proved in half a set upto 11-10, the sight of a tentative Sindhu emboldens opponents to start little fires. The Indian Tokyo favourite will need to gather all the building pressure, in one long breath, and blow out whatever inflammables that opponents flint up.
Should the remaining shooters, archers, wrestlers throw up a medal, Sindhu will have some breathing space. At Rio, Sakshi’s medal had eased things a tad. But India’s long run of setbacks is not the brightest of thoughts to chew on when she’s thinking about what’s expected of her: to own the pressure, not dodge it. There’s a time to be humble – the Olympics isn’t quite it.
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