Indians have taken to Nozomi Okuhara’s disarming charm and her distinctly non-combative bearing on court as well as the sheer tenacity with which she has engaged with PV Sindhu in monstrous rallies, in a big way. The two 22-year-olds might be sick of the sight of each other across the court – it can only mean long rallies, longer matches and longest ice baths no matter what the result – but the two are aware the world is looking at them as the sport’s hottest rivalry currently, with men’s singles and all the doubles with their nascent combinations put in the shade.
Round 2 of the Japan Super Series at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, where the world will rub its hands in anticipation of another scrap between the World No 4 Indian and World No 9 Japanese, makes it shuttle’s travelling coliseum of the two gladiators. Their low seeding explains the early face-off, though in what can be called a galactic alignment of gritty stars, Sindhu faces another rally-machine Minatsu Mitani while Okuhara will run into and keep running against Hong Kong’s diving retriever Ngan-Yi Cheung.
There are more than two women in international badminton, possessed with this form of attrition, and as luck would have it, all four will be on adjacent two courts, trying to heroically get ahead.
Sindhu doesn’t quite remember the first time they met. It was the Badminton Asia Youth U-19 championship right before the London Olympics, far away from the limelight. Saina Nehwal was not an Olympic medallist and Sindhu and Okuhara – as well as Carolina Marin and Ratchanok – were still juniors.
Unsurprisingly, the match went to three games, ending — you guessed it, 22-20 — in Sindhu’s favour. What followed was a long wait for another win for the Indian. Till February of 2016, the Japanese had recorded three 3-game victories against the tall Indian, meaning Sindhu went into the Rio Olympics having never beaten her in senior badminton. Indians, desperately looking for their first Olympic medal after a shambolic first week in Rio, barely noticed the 5’1” woman who was boomed out by a rampaging Sindhu, who ensured a medal. 21-19 was a sneak peek into what was to come a year later, but Sindhu was devastating in the second game, the 21-10 blitz further pushing Okuhara to fine print, before the Carolina-Sindhu face-off peaked in belligerence and decibel.
At many levels, this is a more pickled rivalry than with Marin. Sindhu recalls what was going on in her mind before Rio. “When I was playing against her, I didn’t want bronze,” she says, having raised the bar for herself. “Because it was the semifinal, I thought I should not lose. Before that I’d lost against her thrice already. After a long time, I won against her at Rio. I just didn’t want to lose to her,” Sindhu told The Indian Express.
Badminton doesn’t reach the blood rush-and-drop moments of deuce as in tennis always, but this duo has played 8 games that are either 21-19 or 22-20 when the urgency to string together two straight points is a mini-drama of its own. Sindhu and Okuhara have the particular talent of hitting the crescendo when across the court from the other.
“We’ve played a lot of long matches actually, so don’t remember the first. Almost all are 3 games except at Rio. She’s a rally player. Long, long rallies in long, long matches,” Sindhu laughs. “She has good strokes, picks every shuttle, and is very patient. She is doing really well,” Sindhu simply says.
She struck up a rapport with fellow head-banger Marin in the year after their cacophonous and heady stroke-making pacy thriller in Rio. She’s just warming up to what is still a raw (and bone sore) rivalry with Okuhara.
“Off court, we’re not really (friends). Just normal hi-bye, that’s it. Nothing more than that,” Sindhu says. The racquets have done all the talking – and a lot of it, at that. But the three Rio medallists (Okuhara beat Chinese London Olympic champion Li Xuerui) did a spot of selfie-clicking, three easy smiles betraying none of the sharpened knives that’ll be flung this week. It can safely be said Tokyo is a tougher field than Glasgow or Seoul – with World No 1 Tai Tzu Ying wanting to get into the mix again.
Sindhu didn’t travel to Japan last year, and is not making a big deal over it being the 2020 host city or Okuhara’s backyard. “Coming every year, there’s nothing new about it. Same courts, nothing different,” she says.
Okuhara’s fan following in India is probably down to the greater number of smiles rather than scowls on court, though battles with Marin have their own bellicose buzz. It’s a jazz concert to a rock show, and Indians are simply pleased Sindhu can waltz one day and tango the next. It’s all sweet music for Indians as long as she wins. “The rivalry is always there – on court with anybody. With Carolina, we are both aggressive on court. And off court we are just normal friends. Same with Okuhara, when you are on the court, that rivalry is on!” she says.
She is wary of the famous Okuhara trick that stretches her in a lunge on the forecourt. “Those cross-court drops. She does well in that,” she puts it mildly. “The other Japanese are tough too — Mitani and Okuhara. And Sayaka.
“Mitani will not be easy and she will have the home crowd supporting her. It will be tough and I have to be focused and take it step by step,” she was quoted as saying by BWF. Okuhara was at her charming best.
“Yes, I hope to continue the great rivalry. Winning this tournament (in 2015) was my first Super Series success. It was a stepping stone for me. It is my home tournament and I want to show how well I can play and how much I enjoy playing. You have to constantly adapt your tactics because players like Sindhu get used to your tricks so I need to play well and be careful if I want to win,” she added.
The Olympic champion, nudged aside a tad this last month, spoke of this golden age of women’s singles. “The players in the top 10 are all about the same level and everyone can win tournaments. Women’s singles is very tough now and I have to fight hard. It’s not my best season but I will keep trying,” Marin, unaccustomed to being left out of skirmishes, said.