A big part of Carolina Marin’s mental training has been about utterly convincing herself that she is the best badminton player in the world. She takes legitimate pride in being one of the world’s fastest, and three instances in the past point to why she can’t – literally – countenance the idea of someone else being better than her.
It had bothered her coaching team a lot when all talk heading into the Rio Olympics was about the stroke-player Ratchanok Intanon. In the break before she effected the turnaround against PV Sindhu in the Olympic final, coach Fernando Rivas had reminded her of how she was better. And finally, Marin has always maintained that she’d like to go down in history as one of the all-time greats.
In becoming the first woman to get a third Worlds crown, the Spaniard fantastically stayed the course to greatness. Taking the knockout punch this time was Sindhu, who lost 21-19, 21-10 for her second successive defeat in the World Championship final. She had almost looked disappointed when He Bingjiao took out Tai Tzu Ying in the quarters, when she shot off the words in quite a combative tone: “The favourite player to win has lost in quarters, I’ll be prepared for He Bingjiao, but I would’ve been ready for Tai Tzu Ying as well.”
Marin had spent the last three weeks in “mental training for the Worlds”, and was most likely geed up for the Chinese Taipese World No.1 in the semifinals. Last year when she was denied by Nozomi Okuhara, still dealing with niggling injuries and far from fit, Marin had licked her wounds and gone back into training. Facing the brunt of the hunter kept away from its prey this week were Saina Nehwal and He Bingjiao on Saturday.
Sindhu being mowed down by the same bulldozing effort, in hindsight, looked inevitable. While Sindhu’s nervousness, her tactical choices and the growing pile of Finals losses can be analysed threadbare (she was even compared to the perennially luckless and title-less Lee Chong Wei, which might even count as a backhanded compliment down the road), it’ll be unfair to not give Marin credit for dishing out yet another Indian heartbreak.
Marin’s supreme self-awareness – some might unfairly call it a chip on her shoulder or a bearing of entitlement on the court which she stomps and roars and hustles on, and finally rules – squarely contributes to her rampaging domination, when she’s fit and playing the blazing game of her life. A World Championship title – from the moment she landed in Nanjing – was hers to reclaim, after the silence of 2017.
On Sunday, she never dipped in her intensity – even when shuttles were going wide of the lines by inches – Marin kept searching for the lines to counter Sindhu’s height and reach that could cover the central mass of the court. Sindhu enjoyed a semblance of control to lead 14-9 in the opener while Marin adjusted her sights on the Indian’s backhand corners, but thereafter, it was a Marin show all the way.
The 23-year-old Sindhu, ranked 3, had started well: containing Marin’s speed, moving well, keeping the Spaniard on a leash. She had been pushing Marin back, playing the high tosses and clears at a good length and counter-attacking to take that initial lead, breaking away at 9-8.
At 13-9 was perhaps Sindhu’s best rally, when she defended stoutly and had the better of a prolonged exchange. But soon the Spaniard started drawing out errors at the net. Sindhu’s attempts to stall, as the pace began to rise, were shot down as Marin objected to the Indian taking long to receive a serve. After half a dozen of these instances, with all her bluster making the fast rallies appear even speedier, Sindhu was left to smile wryly at a shuttle change being denied and her efforts being nipped.
Levelling at 18-all, Marin would rain down her steep shots, though it was the left-handed cross-court drop that gave her the 19-18 lead. Sindhu’s focus seemed to have lapsed at this audacious rallying from behind, as she gifted away three cheap errors. Marin would first jump on the set 21-19, and then pounce at her towel with such belligerence while switching ends that her intent became plainly clear.
Sindhu’s second shy at the world title went steadily downhill thereafter – she trailed 0-5, and there was no recovery from there as Marin stayed relentlessly on the offensive going to the break at 11-2. All that the Indian had managed was to break Marin’s rhythm for 15 minutes, without finding her own.
The beauty of Marin’s hounding game was that under all that aggro, she had reset the pace of the match, and the close line misses soon started hail-storming as winners. After she was ambushed at the end of the opening set, Sindhu allowed a further initial spurt to her opponent, and Marin seemed to be knowing the importance of these initial points, as she toyed with the Indian. It hadn’t been easy—shifting gears from playing defensive metronomes Sung Ji Hyun, Nozomi Okuhara and Akane Yamaguchi who literally play the harp, while Marin hits the stage head-banging with a guitar, catering to the mosh-pit. Between negotiating these dissonant notes, Sindhu’s own aggression couldn’t strike the right chords.
It wasn’t like she was breathing hard and physically not up for it, but Marin had swamped her with her winners. It’s tough to tell if memories of all the previous finals she’s lost ever entered her mind – but Marin was going for her shots with all her power, agility and rushing skills at a 100 percent, denying Sindhu any coherent thought at all.
“I’d have played much better if I’d won the first. Second set, I was making too many errors and she took the lead. By the time I had to cover the lead, my smashes were going out. It was just not my day,” she would say.
Coach Pullela Gopichand’s instructions for the slow-drop seemed to be Sindhu’s plan. But this was always going to be a Catch 22. Marin was so quick, she could smother them in a jiffy, but upping the pace would have played into Marin’s hands. Sindhu’s inherent deception capabilities are limited at the moment—she was not going to grow strokes suddenly, like Tai Tzu does— and her best tactical shot was under heavy firing from the Spaniard who believed no one but her could win that title.
Kento: Banned for gambling to World champ
Chinese Shi Yuqi had no answers to Japan’s Kento Momota, as the anointed heir, claimed his first World Championship title, with a thumping 21-11, 21-13 in 49 minutes. Yuqi threw everything at the left-handed Momota who would swat away with his delectable strokes and completely dominate the net, for his first title.
The Japanese is returning from a casino gambling ban imposed by the Japanese federation, which had delayed his coronation by perhaps a year. Momota has a stunning record of winning all but two of his finals, and found no creative resistance from the Chinese, whose attempts to out-muscle the Japanese ended up looking lame, even as he repeatedly looked back to his coaching chair at a loss of answers.