If you foraged around for the last time PV Sindhu didn’t show up in the finals of a major badminton championship over the last two seasons – the search would end at last year’s All England. Breathlessly consistent and bogglingly competent in making it to the Sunday summits of every big tournament, Sindhu has turned up at Olympics, two World Championships, two Super Series Finals, Commonwealth and Asian Games championship deciders since her 2016 stomp on the highest stage.
Through her sheer relentlessness, Sindhu has stamped her presence wherever they’ve sounded the badminton bugle across the world. Coach Gopichand and Sindhu herself have vocally sounded out their intention to target the Big All E this time around, even as the wait for an Indian winner enters its 18th year.
Both of India’s previous winners believe 2019 could see the stars align once again – based on Sindhu’s run-up to Birmingham. Prakash Padukone who won in 1980 reckons the lead-up to this year has a whiff of Sindhu’s preparations similar to other big meets where she could devote a large chunk of time to uninterrupted training. “I’m looking forward to seeing her play at the All England this year. She’s had a fairly long break – training without playing a tournament. Whenever she’s done that – a good 3-4 weeks of training, she’s done well, be it the Olympics or Worlds. It’s a fairly long training period and she builds up well,” he said adding that she must feel very confident.
Coach Gopichand, in a rare non-demure lead-up since December, has voiced his intent of pushing his ward to stake claim to the title he last won in 2001. “Sindhu had some good preparation, and the courts at All England are good courts for Sindhu so I hope we have a good tournament this time,” he said.
Elaborating on the 23-year-old’s ability to raise her game befitting big occasions, the coach added that the courts at King Edward’s Road are playing true, which ought to suit Sindhu’s rangy, booming game. “In big tournaments, in conditions which are true she obviously has had a good record. And it’s to do with her strength and power as well. Her game is suited to big conditions. And at All England those conditions are true so I do expect her to do well,” he added. Courts playing true would indicate minimal hindrance of the A/C draughts which brings forth Sindhu’s unrestrained big game – that’s courts that are not treacherous to play on, not too fast neither slow.
Why the draw doesn't matter to Sindhu
Everyone loves a good draw, but PV Sindhu has made a habit of negotiating the bad - or tough ones. When she won her first World's bronze, there were the two dominant from pre-quarters, Chinese Shixian and 2012 silver medallist, the fierce Yihan Wang strewing her path. During her next bronze in 2014, Sindhu again faced a tough Round of 16 opponent in Korean Bae Yeon Ju as a 18-year-old and Shixian again in the pre-quarters. Making her first Super Series finals at Denmark in 2015, Sindhu had Tai Tzu (pre-quarters), Yihan Wang (quarters) and Carolina Marin (semis) as mammoth roadblocks. Looking at the Olympics draw, no one would have guessed that the Indian could ram her way into the finals for a silver, the biggest medal won by an Indian woman. There was Michelle Li, her CWG 2014 nemesis in her group, and the next three names in knockouts read: Tai Tzu, Yihan Wang and Okuhara before she met her match in Marin. The 2017 Worlds draw wasn't a cakewalk - not until she made it look easy - her almighty trudge starting with a 87-minute Round of 16 clash against Cheung Ngan Yi before she disdained off Chinese Sun Yu and Chen Yufei. By the time the 2018 Worlds rolled into focus, Sindhu herself was the marked woman. But, she was undeterred by the prospect of the two Japanese - Okuhara and Yamaguchi standing in her way, despite having lost close three-set thrillers to them previously. Sindhu would beat them both, pick her second straight silver, and still have enough firepower to make the Asian Games final in 23 days. There's nothing like a bad draw for the mighty Sindhu.
As upbeat as she would be and aspiring to go deep into the week, rarely has Sindhu encountered a first-round opponent as accomplished as Korean Sung Ji Hyun who she runs into straight away. She leads the elegant, rally player 8-6, having traded wins equally since the last Olympics, including a loss the last time they met at Hong Kong. But the November scoreline of 26-24, 22-20 points to some early excitement for India’s biggest name, seeded 5 here, who will be ready for a tight fight to start off at Arena Birmingham.
Her next probable opponent is another tricky prospect despite Sindhu’s 5-0 visible dominance over Hong Kong’s Cheung Ngan Yi. In the 2017 Glasgow Worlds, it would be unthinkable that there could have been an opponent more titanic than Nozomi Okuhara. However, Sindhu’s most wearying and trudging victory in fact came early in the pre-quarters against Cheung, a match that pushed her thresholds of pain and exhaustion while the girl from Hong Kong endlessly rallied putting every shuttle in. That’s two straight days of haring about on the cards before Sindhu could run into China’s canniest Chen Yufei, whom she leads 4-3, and who coach Gopichand accords enough respect, owing to her cerebral game.
Should she cross that, there’s her old foe Nozomi Okuhara, whom Sindhu needs to get past to get out of the lower half of the draw. The record is stacked 7-6 in Sindhu’s favour with 4 wins from 6 matches since the Worlds’ marathon, and Okuhara’s bunch of injury troubles. But Sindhu would consider this a better half, with her share of nemeses – Tai Tzu Ying, He Bingjiao and Saina Nehwal clubbed in the other half. With the All England being the biggest of tournaments in a relatively non-cluttered year until the Worlds, Sindhu is expected to train her focus on winning this year before the cacophony of Olympics qualification drowns down everything else in coming months.
The pursuit of the prestigious All England has been a longer expedition for Saina Nehwal, a finalist in 2015, and on her way back to striking the best form. At the newly christened World Tour Super 1000, with a prize kitty of USD 1 million, Nehwal starts out against Scottish Kirsty Gilmour, the closest the tournament comes to a home contender in women’s singles. The wildly hitting, jump-smashing Gilmour girl, who plays unfettered by knowledge of her two cobbled together knees, is the immediate challenge for the Indian seeded 8th. There’s also the Chinese teenager, Cai Yanyan, before she runs into Tai Tzu Ying, returning from an injury that had her playing at half-strength since the World Tour Finals.
“Saina’s had some good performances, and she’s beaten a lot of good players in the last few months. She’s been pretty consistent as well, so altough the draw is tough for Saina I’m positive about her outcome,” coach Gopichand said. Nehwal has wins against Okuhara, Bingjiao, Ratchanok and Yamaguchi in the last six months besides yet another thumping of a listless Sindhu in the Nationals final. She won the Indonesia Masters where Carolina Marin snapped her knee, and has seen a resurgence even as she pushes 29.
Marin’s absence is welcomed but not too gleefully by opponents. “Marin has been a top contender and played well in big tournaments so obviously her loss is definitely badminton’s loss at world level which is very unfortunate. Her not being there of course is good, but it doesnt lessen the competition by any means. There are quality players again and it’s not gonna make anyone’s path easier at All England,” Gopichand stated.