Updated: April 30, 2022 7:52:05 am
It will always escape the dour medal-counters of Indian sport – those who get hung up on suffixes to attach to PV Sindhu – just how precious her value is, to sport’s biggest metric: capturing eyeballs on a day-to-day basis. Capturing and holding them steady in the now, in the present. Sindhu was born for television.
Her game, the contests that reach the critical mass of excitement before exploding into fireworks and how an opponent gets snared into a duel entirely of her making, is the stuff of sporting spectacle that Olympic sports crave, in between Games years. Badminton, with its widely whimsical broadcast schedules, where fans across the world are scrambling for livestreams of early rounds, lucks out when top players hit the tube. In her 10th year since her first major medal – the bronze at the 2013 World Championships, what’s remained unchanged is Sindhu’s ability to add a zing of natural theatrics to every contest, making her amongst the most prominent of pivots, the most happening gig at any tournament.
The inflection-point in the quarterfinals of the Badminton Asian Championship in Manila – which Sindhu edged 21-9, 13-21, 21-19 – came at 16-14 in the decider against Chinese left-hander He Bingjiao. There is a whiff of controversy about whether it was actually 16-15, as the Chinese who was trailing, claimed. But the lead-up to that point was no less dramatic.
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First the primer: the shuttles in Manila are literally shooting from one side of the court owing to the drift, which makes controlling them very difficult. Sindhu was on the more manageable side in the opener and took it 21-9. Bingjiao broke away at 10-10 in the second from the better side, and raced to take the next 21-13. Even-stevens, aka Sindhu territory, the decider.
Carrying a clear plan of keeping a chunky cushioning lead while on the good side, Sindhu reached 11-5 in the third at the change of ends. She was 11-2 at one point. Against the Chinese whom she thumped in the Tokyo Olympics for a bronze after missing out on a gold medal-final, Sindhu looked set to win Match-22. Then came the catch.
The chair umpire had been kept busy by the duo with challenges as the shuttle straggled along the tramlines like a tipsy trundler at 3-2 early in the game.
In courtcraft, Sindhu’s round-the-head reverse-angled dippers were fetching her points, even as the smash tested Bingjiao’s body defence. The Chinese smashed one capriciously into the net and her lifts sailed out as Sindhu reached 16-9, well on course for the semis.
To be sure, this was a mediocre quality shot-making match, with errors hogging the bragging rights to points.
Realising she needed to curb Sindhu’s flow, Bingjiao went for the forecourt low dips at the net to make Sindhu bend on the left and open up the right half of the court. Improvisations on this took the Chinese to 16-13. Sindhu’s early lead was being chipped into, and it has happened often that opponents run away with momentum from here. Sindhu parked the bus.
Then something bizarre happened. It was at the end of a 13-shot rally that Bingjiao’s floating return landed on the sideline, bringing her to two points within Sindhu’s score. The challenge was more of a water-sipper break than anything with conviction because the shuttle dropped within inches of her. The review went in the Chinese player’s favour.
At the start of that rally, the score on the adjacent court with another women’s singles quarterfinal was 4-1. On Sindhu’s court, calling for the review and then the resolution of the Hawkeye and then summoning of players saw a variety of scorelines flashing on the board. 16-14, 16-15, 16-13, 17-14, the confusion went on for long enough as the announced score and the screen scores were revised with two outside officials walking onto the court to resolve the muddle.
While the chair umpire was reeling off the score some moments later, both players took turns to declare their versions of the score to her. The Chinese claimed it was 16-15 and seemed to be under the impression that a short point was played out after the review. Sindhu insisted it was 16-14 – something the umpire finally went with.
Too close for comfort
By this time, the other quarterfinal had moved to 14-4 from 4-1, and Bingjiao did indeed take the next point with a cross net interception that Sindhu dumped into the net.
Suddenly, it was a 1-point game after Bingjiao’s flurry of six straight points, after a not-so-straight panning out of events. What followed was errors galore from both players who were a tad shaken by l’affaire scoreboard. Still Sindhu showed all kinds of stubbornness at the net to take it to 20-17 and three match points. Three times in the match, Bingjiao was left crawling on all fours trying to reach the shuttle, as Sindhu’s drops stumped her.
A 24-shot rally followed, and the shuttle demanded to hog attention brushing the very top of the tape, threatening to tumble over, but falling to the same side cheekily to bring the Chinese to 20-18. Another Sindhu error brought it to 20-19 before the Chinese found a flinging lift limp off the net and an emotional hyper-charged Sindhu fell to the floor in relief.
There’s still a semifinal to fight against Akane Yamaguchi on Saturday. But one wouldn’t be blamed for thinking Friday was the blockbuster final.
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