“Vamonos Marin, Vamonos!”
The crowd had made clear that their pre-match support lay with Carolina Marin quite early. ‘Pre-match,’ because as the hour would go by, at the NSCI Stadium in Mumbai, allegiances would be tested.
On the other side of the court stood the tall and hard-working PV Sindhu – a clear crowd-favourite on any other day. And on the night she would have to win back that support from the stands before she could get the better of the Spaniard. Eventually, she would do just that, winning 11-15, 15-8, 15-13.
The setting wasn’t the most competitive for the typically intense Sindhu-Marin fiesta. Sindhu’s Hyderabad Hunters had already taken an unassailable lead over Marin’s Pune 7 Aces, in the opening match of the Premier Badminton League. Of course, just their presence opposite each other on court is enough for the shrieks and fireworks to erupt on court.
On tour, the pair has met 15 times – including the famous final at the Rio Olympics. The last time they met, in the final of the World Championships earlier this year, Marin raced away to a comprehensive win. A dead rubber this may be on the day, neither likes to lose – let alone to each other.
The cries of ‘vamonos,’ and ‘Caro’ rang the loudest in the first set.
Sindhu tried to slow things down to put a stopper to Marin’s momentum. Even if it meant calling for a Hawk-Eye review for her shot that sailed several inches wide of the line – Marin smiled, knowing exactly what the Indian was attempting. Time and again the Indian would also be unready to receive serve, leading to the customary warnings from the umpire.
It seemed like a futile effort that didn’t do much to win the crowd. But Sindhu stuck to her guns. As Marin shrieked after every point she won – more so towards the latter stages of the match – Sindhu remained quiet, celebrating silently.
Soon enough she’d win the crowd.
Sindhu returned after the break, now aided by a drift, bringing with her every ounce of tenacity she could muster. Suddenly she started to dictate play, dominate rallies, and force errors from Marin.
The most telling came in the third set. Poised at 12-12, Sindhu drew the Spaniard to the net and then lofted. Marin shuffled backwards, aimed a smash return, but, inexplicably, missed the shuttle altogether.
Till that moment, if Sindhu had not won back the crowd, she did so at that point.
A few rallies later, at match point, Sindhu smashed straight at Marin who got a feeble shank back into the net.
That’s when Sindhu let out her emotions. Her roar was audible even through the wild cheer from the stands. She was in no hurry to get to the net for the customary hand-shake.
It was a victory she revelled in. She had won over an opponent who has been one of her toughest nemesis. And she did so by winning over a crowd that initially leaned the other way.
By no means did the 23-year-old walk into the stadium without any support from the stands. Outside, a group of spectators debated about what time they should enter the stands – Sindhu’s match was the only one they wanted to witness.
They got another spectacle.
“It was a heart-attack for everybody,” Sindhu would say later as the seemingly casual league opener turned intense with scores 9-9, 11-11 going right up to 13-13 in the decider. “Overall, thanks for the support, fans,” the Indian would say, even after Marin had charmed the Saturday crowd, wowing them at the outset.
The Sindhu-Marin epic was the fourth match of the night.
The opener featured India’s teen sensation Lakshya Sen. A few weeks ago, the 17-year-old won the biggest title of his career at the Tata Open International Challenger. On the night, he countered world no 34 Mark Caljouw stroke for stroke in a tight contest he eventually lost out in the deciding point, 15-13, 12-15, 14-15. It would be the start of Hyderabad’s clean sweep 6- Minus-1.
Bollywood creative royalty R Balki and Anurag Kashyap turned up to support Tapsee Pannu’s Pune team.
It was an intense opening match for the season. But the tie will be known more for that crowd-winning effort from Sindhu.