Japan have a 5 feet 10.5 inch problem on their hands in trying to win a home medal at the Tokyo Games. It answers to the name PV Sindhu. And it answers many questions —well, most— that Nozomi Okuhara can carefully construct.
In what is a Newtonian corollary, Sindhu has a pint-sized headache named Nozomi, that flares up every now and then, and which cannot be dismissed as nothing, after a particularly daunting Glaswegian afternoon that Okuhara denied her a World Championship.
A little to the South on the M6 this time at Birmingham’s All England, Okuhara once again snatched a match from Sindhu’s grasp with a counterattack that was so poised and precise that you wondered how a 21-7, 21-7 scoreline fetched up the last time they battled at Basel.
Sending her out of the All England in the quarters with all the polite manners and graces, Okuhara won their 17th encounter, 12-21, 21-15, 21-13. It’s a textbook rivalry that never descends to bad blood or excessive fist pumping. It sticks to badminton – and peels off the sport’s layers shot by shot; scuffles over the two flanks first, then a thorough battle of the baseline, then maybe a skirmish of the smashes flirting with the tramlines and finally a nudge-wink passive-aggressive inquisition of each other’s backhands.
The Sindhu-Nozomi matches have it all. They almost get each other to drop the juvenile concepts of going one-up in a scoring contest, and delve deep into the nuance and resilience of each other’s shots.
So there were long rallies, though nothing like Glasgow. But evolved – intellectual even, in trying to outwit each other. When she’s not forcing her to dig deep, Nozomi makes Sindhu look very grown-up. No one has pickled Sindhu’s game as much as the Japanese 25-year-old has. And every chapter added to their rendezvous is a story of its own.
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This one started with Sindhu asserting her 5’10.5 mightiness on a scrambling Okuhara in the first. The plan was to send the shuttle soaring so high so often that Okuhara would tire into mistakes. She found the net glumly often. The opener saw Sindhu win the baseline war even while brandishing the imposing big crosscourt smash.
A couple of her body defense parries from the erstwhile vulnerable hip height, ended up winners even, as did defensive blocks. Opponents will need to perish the thought that she’s clueless when hit on the body. It’s still awkward, but she’s found a way out. Okuhara also lacked sharpness at this juncture at the net, before she started to pin Sindhu back.
Guided by her coaching team, the Japanese spun a web neutralising Sindhu’s momentum and her roughshod attack. The Indian’s power game then began to fluctuate in the second, as Okuhara, far more proactive in her attack than 2017, and determined to give it right back (also having the nous to execute that audacity), started unsettling Sindhu.
When the momentum shifted, it didn’t swing back. And Sindhu’s errors piled on as she looked less threatening with each passing point. She barely looked in with a chance in the decider, as Okuhara displayed her smiling stubbornness while carefully taking Sindhu apart. She never quite let go of the lead once she had her snout ahead.
Winning comfortably in the end, Okuhara would turn to all four corners with folded hands. And another round for the Indian. If killing with kindness was a shuttle player, it would be Nozomi Okuhara.
The Japanese has lost 6 finals in 2019. And Sindhu hasn’t won much since Basel. But it’s a rivalry the badminton cannot tire of. Not every match is a titanic battle, each has its unique vibe. With all things falling apart, the two decided to give a badminton masterclass in cerebral takedowns.
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