How do you top an Olympic silver medal? With a gold medal at Tokyo in four year’s time, of course. But there will be a dozen boxes to tick, a host of new frontiers to conquer, and a bustling bunch of opponents to quell for PV Sindhu before 2020 fetches up.
In her Olympics final rematch with Carolina Marin — the first time the two faced off since that titanic Rio battle – the Indian 21-year-old blistered away to a 21-17, 21-13 win, that India rejoiced as a revenge.
It takes incredible motivation to follow up a high intensity clash such as was witnessed during the Rio Olympics’ championship match, with what Sindhu has rattled off in the last one month — her first Super Series title at China beating a Chinese, back to back finals, briefly becoming India’s top ranked shuttler, qualifying for her first ever year-end Super Series Finals (where the world’s Top 8 turn up) in nick of time, and now making the semis from a must-win situation.
That the Spanish nemesis, that opponent who Indians watched on television screens from Riocentro and learnt to boo against during that August finals day, could be silenced in the same aggressive pitch, will bring some sweet satisfaction.
Marin’s left-handed pummeling has sobered a tad since the Olympics. In fact both Sindhu and Marin haven’t quite operated at the feverish pace that was witnessed in Rio, not even when Sindhu won the China finals.
Yet, it was important for Sindhu to up her intensity in attempting to down Marin, and coach P Gopichand pumped his fist, scolded and snarled from the sidelines uncharacteristically, so that Sindhu got the job done. It wasn’t just that it was Marin, but also that Sindhu had looked off against Chinese Sun Yu a day earlier driving herself in a familiar corner — the sorts she used to find herself in before she climbed the Olympics podium and transformed into a fearsome force.
The coach was aware of Marin’s ability to bounce back with belligerence, and had needed his ward to stay sharp for the counters.
Marin was clearly struggling with some injury, and after three years of taking the top prizes of the season — two World Championships and the Olympics gold – has been experiencing what it feels like to be bullied by an opponent.
She woud’ve loved to add the season-ending Super Series Finals to her kitty — the one title that she’s never won. But it’s been a rough fag end to a marvelous year when she became the first European and non-Chinese in more than a decade to win the Olympics.
At Dubai, Marin saved 8 match points against Chinese Sun Yu, before going down in the opener. Then she played out a relentless 86-minute exchange with Japanese Akane Yamaguchi, losing again. Sindhu would’ve been the last opponent she’d have wanted to be on the other side of the net, seeking to stay alive in the competition.
But the Indian, chastised from the loss to Sun Yu yesterday and doubly driven to put it past Marin, was going to be the last person to help the Spaniard find some resistance. Coach Fernando Rivas has sat all three matches one hand folded, the other under the chin watching Marin struggle. Sindhu, psyched up by her mentor Gopichand, kept her intensity up though.
There was the earnest defense — something to be deeply admired given at 5’11’ bending really takes a lot out of Sindhu, and there was the down the line smashes to exploit Marin’s few-frames-slower backhand. It was a good end-of-season pace the two settled for — taking Marin’s speedy, whiplash, breathless rallies out of the equation, giving Sindhu time to magnify her steep strokes and bring height into the picture.
While it’s known that Marin – at her best, is mighty difficult to match in pace, what’s also true is that Sindhu in her relentless form similarly needs an opponent to be armed with her A-Game if she fancies beating the Indian. On this day in that big hall with the drift Marin was imploding — seeking medical assistance on a leg cut mid games and guilty of some outrageous errors.
She had a handy lead in the opener, but Sindhu crunched away at the margins and in the second save for one rally where Marin went vintage with her whirring hand speed for a winner, it looked like the Indian’s match much before the final return drifted long.
When both were still coming up, Sindhu had beaten Marin at a Maldives International Challenge in 2011.
From then to Dubai, both have come a long way — Marin marginally ahead at 5-4 in head to head.
Where Sindhu has some catching up to do is in winning titles — culminating good weeks into top podiums. Marin’s always been known for her big-finals play. Sindhu will need to go all the way to match that quality of the Olympic champion. There’s Korean Sung Ji Hyun, the player in red-hot form at Dubai, waiting in the semis. Seen that way, a revenge victory over Marin looks like just a stepping stone on way to staking claim to a title. Enough of those silver medals, the China Open title would’ve told Sindhu what winning gold tastes like.