There is a certain lingering irritation that stays imprinted on PV Sindhu’s face if she botches a game-plan when she plays. There’s the single shake of the head as if to shrug off the mediocrity of the mistake, and a frown pasted on her visage that almost says that it was a point she lost, not one her opponent won. This reaches its pronounced peak immediately after she manages to win the next point – clenching her fist, pumping the air and almost spitting off a roar, to definitively put a fullstop to the previous fault, an almost arrogant end to the error.
Coach Gopichand can be seen sitting in his coach’s chair and wearing that frown too, with the ward mirroring the teacher. That combined derision for mistakes and scorn towards errors is what has brought Sindhu all the success these last two years. It is what helps her snap out of a 2-5 deficit in the decider against Chinese He Bing Jiao, race to take a furious lead at 11-7, and hold on for a 21-11, 16-21, 21-18 win in the opener of the Dubai Super Series Finals.
Women’s singles badminton currently is replete with talent and skill, deception and determination. But there isn’t quite another player on the circuit right now with quite this appetite for sheer daredevilry. It’s supreme arrogance yes, but also the audacity to back that will and literally assert hegemony on a badminton court. It’s what helps Sindhu declare at the start of the season-ender with the best names assembled that this time she’ll make the finals in the 8-women’s super-elite field.
Saina Nehwal carried that chutzpah very naturally and it was the bulwark of her mental strength. Sindhu tends to smile sweetly, giggle at regular intervals when setting out goals for a meet, and still improve the colour of her medals.
Women’s singles badminton is in the middle of its golden age right now with the sheer quality of matches on display that has put to shade men’s singles even. And breathlessly for India – Sindhu has been a common constant throughout: livening up the Olympic finals that used to be staid all-Chinese affairs all these years, bringing the roof down with those monstrous rallies against Nozomi Okuhara at the World Championships a year later. Even bringing to life a mundane Korea Open final in what was a revenge gig of the Worlds, building up excitement ahead of the Hong Kong final rematch against top player Tai Tzu Ying. She’s the heartbeat echo of every single rivalry on the women’s singles circuit: against Marin, Okuhara, even Saina Nehwal, Tai Tzu and everyone’s favourite Ratchanok. Only Yamaguchi has rendered her a tad redundant in their contests.
Sindhu’s ability to take on any playing style, fight her way out of every corner and play a worthy antagonist to the leading names is the story of last two years. Refreshingly, for someone who spent the pre-Olympic months in injury oblivion, the Indian has stayed fresh for every new challenge and stepped up everytime a big, buzzing event fetches up.
She might not be the neutral’s favourite – her grinding, gritty and often gruesomely snatched victories don’t always inspire poetry unless it’s the ballad of Glasgow. But her boldness in baring her fangs and demanding a win is so altogether different from the rest of the genteel pack that the sport is accustomed to, that in Carolina Marin’s absence, she becomes an automatic contender even if she’s not won the big finals.
At Dubai, she would like to change that script. And for good measure, she announced it too before the tournament started getting the commentators crinkling their noses at her brash declaration. At the first hint of her faltering – while He Bing Jiao was chipping away at the second game and dragging this into a decider, they were clucking about how the Indian is bringing on pressure on herself by declaring her intent to be in the finals.
What they didn’t know – or didn’t acknowledge, one suspects, is that PV Sindhu will follow through on her word. She might still come up short against the talent of Tai Tzu at some point, or meet the haring nemesis Akane Yamaguchi. But she will take serious stopping.
He Bing Jiao couldn’t on opening day.
The left-hander is rated highly, plays clever angles, but was literally bullied out of the match by a furious Sindhu who’d allowed her to win 21-16 in the second after a 21-11 blitz.
Everyone knows by now that a Sindhu special unfolds in Set 3. But the plans were drilled in as soon as the decider was shaping up. Picking her winners with a straight, steep attack in the opening set, Sindhu would begin to counter Bing Jiao with cross shots that taunted and teased the Chinese girl’s relatively poorer reach. Far on her forehand and making her bend low and front on her backhand, Sindhu would work her like the end of a yo yo string.
Realising that she was picking everything thrown straight, Sindhu would start putting angles on her strokes and push the opponent to corners. When she would dip in her movement, the coach would urge her to speed up and target the edges making the stocky rival run.
In the third, things would really heat up – Sindhu’s whirring hand speed went up, she was stomping away on the floor but it was her ability to bend her back, hit the high tosses and not shy away from the long rallies that would unsettle the Chinese who’d have fancied her chances having made the comeback.
But Sindhu would become even more imposing, hold back a second only for the winners in deception and play the lifts to push back the Chinese. She drew out a majority of errors from lulling the World No 9 into a crosscourt game that ensured angles which would see reflex returns fly long. But it was in that 4-point surge from 2-5 down to leading 6-5 that Sindhu would snort, frown and hit with such cutting sharpness that any opponent would’ve seemed like an interloper who ought not to be even entertaining hopes of beating the Indian.
Sindhu would need to run hard to run away with the match against Sayaka Sato tomorrow.
Axelsen beats Srikanth
PTI adds: World No.4 Srikanth, however, couldn’t bring out his top game as he suffered a 13-21 17-21 loss to World No.1 and defending champion Viktor Axelsen in a Group B men’s singles match that lasted just 38 minutes. Srikanth seemed of-colour as Axelsen towered over the Indian with his better agility and placement. Srikanth dominated the proceedings early on but could not sustain the momentum.