Updated: March 16, 2022 7:47:41 pm
It can take an almighty effort, scraping the deepest reserves of energy, to win the All England, as Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand would attest. PV Sindhu, easily India’s greatest shuttler, is a serial history-maker at the Olympics and World Championships – where six other singles players and one pairing have medalled. But India’s two rare triumphs at the All England, and the 21-year lull since the last one, make the lack of titles there a riddle that’s begun to perturb.
Padukone was in the midst of his peak in 1980 and Gopichand put in a lifetime’s resolve and resilience in trapping down that crown in 2001. Saina Nehwal came closest thereafter in 2015 – though finishing a very distant second in an unsteady implosion of nerves.
Sindhu, who rightly sees the Super 1000 event as ‘just another tournament’, can go through another unfavourable result, as the rest of the season rushes along and makes demands on her excellence. But she might not be able to shake off the expectant eyes that get trained instinctively on her, whenever All England comes around.
India’s greatest shuttler, who has notched perhaps the most watchable tournament finals on the circuit over the last decade that can make a signature compilation, ought to have one entry at the least on the All E’s hallowed courts. Her contemporaries – Carolina Marin, Tai Tzu-Ying, Nozomi Okuhara and Chen Yufei have a title each, and Ratchanok Intanon and Akane Yamaguchi have appeared in finals. The All England isn’t a make-or-break of her career, but Sindhu’s stature and career deserve one shy at the title, which the top players of the world (not just sentimental Indians) clearly covet as has been apparent over the last few years.
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MUDDLED PATH AHEAD
For a while now, both Sindhu and coach Park Tae Sang have spoken about the towering Indian shoring up her defence when dealing with the newer challenges that get thrown at her. The thinking is that as opponents catch up with her attack and retrieve everything she unleashes, the longer exchanges will demand better retrieving from her to earn herself the two extra shots before the kill.
On court, Sindhu’s movements look fluid, she has widened her deceptive repertoire especially on the cross-drops and seems to love the confrontations at the net; doesn’t baulk at them, at any rate. However, can the defensive depth to her game against young, rampaging opponents truly furnish her with the tools needed to tame them? Or will it only prolong the length of the matches, and make it tougher going deep into a tournament week?
Sindhu’s game has always relied on power and attacking intent, when intimidating opponents with the big hits, to overawe every big name out there. That she has overpowered and out-thought Tai Tzu on way to an Olympics silver and Worlds gold, and never allowed any name to build around itself a mental demon, save Marin’s breathless speed, has been down to her attack, and nuancing its menace with point-by-point pace and power variations.
As the years roll on and she is required to reinvent, it remains to be seen if a sturdier defence can parry away the likes of An Se Young and Pornpawee Chochuwong and the new Chinese, who come marinated in the same defensive structures. In the Olympic and India Open semifinals, the defence couldn’t make up for the lack of offensive plans. But coach Park has guided Sindhu to wins over Yamaguchi and a reversal against Thai Supanida Katethong (she could run into both this week) at the Syed Modi International last month, giving glimpses of another way to win: absorbing attacks through a dependable defence, before bringing out her sharp attack for the final hunt.
Yet, it remains an energy-intensive option, ripe for trip-ups at some point, during these five-day back-to-back tournament line-ups. While Sindhu’s rarely to never struggles with day-on-day recovery, a Sindhu draped in defence runs the risk of a fizzle, given the relentless quality of her opponents.
THE CHINESE FIRST UP
Wang Zhi Yi was born the summer before India’s last All England title. The 21-year-old, who Sindhu starts out against, has wins against Ratchanok and Yamaguchi in attritional scraps in deciders – which she can drag second-guessing big names into, and also got stuck into An Se Young before being quelled at the wire recently.
The Chinese also has two dozen straight-game losses on the circuit, which deflect from her ability to be one right disruptor when she senses an opening. A slow start isn’t something Sindhu might be able to afford here, though the gulf in class is heavily skewed in the Indian’s favour.
Yet, carved along Olympic champ Chen Yufei’s game, Wang Zhi Yi’s dogged passages of play can cause trouble with her incisive and persistent down-the-line game, which gets tough to cross to move her around with her loopy deception. The forehand forecourt lunge and the net are baits to exploit, but there’s no denying Sindhu will need to hit the ground running.
Women’s singles finals at big global tournaments over the years have literally framed themselves around Sindhu’s giddy march to the weekend summit clashes, though she’s fallen back a bit since the Olympics. The All England is perhaps the first big stage where the full might of the singles field, save Marin, will laser its focus on the title. It’s unthinkable that Sindhu might not consider putting herself in the mix once again, given she’s a moth to flame at big tournaments.
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