Li Xuerui, when told after the match by a scribe that she had played the final “like an Olympic champion”, would first look utterly confused and then shrug off the comment after comprehension would dawn on her – that they were all referring to her. Winning an Olympic gold medal is not something anyone forgets in a hurry, or even momentarily. But one complete year of no titles – none — was enough for the London Games champ to go into memory fade over a feat she achieved three years ago.
Then, she would break down in tears.
Neither Denmark, nor India’s rampaging star PV Sindhu were happy memories for Xuerui. She had famously lost the World Championship final to Carolina Marin at Copenhagen last year.
And then this lanky Indian with a bazooka speed and a scathing game had shown her up as an ageing champ at the Worlds this year in Indonesia.
Li Xuerui had been under immense pressure to win a title – something that had gone missing for twelve whole months. So, when the Indian would grant her a tiny opening, she would pounce on it like the famished would dive at a morsel.
This was Sindhu’s first Super Series final, and you sensed she believed she could win – having beaten the World No 6 earlier this year. But for a few minutes when leading at 16-10, Sindhu would leave it to fate after having done all the hard work this whole week. In those few minutes, Li Xuerui would resurrect first her brittle confidence and then her fumbling career.
In 47 minutes, Sindhu would lose the opportunity to win her first Super Series Premier title, and be forced to smile for the cameras as a second finishing runners-up.
“Sindhu played very well initially, but then I started to concentrate harder, and used my skill and technique to beat her,” Xuerui would say. “I might’ve been Olympic champ three years ago, but all that is in the past. I’ve had a big fall in the last few years and I was waiting for this title since winning at Denmark in 2014. I wasn’t winning and was miserable as life had become difficult. I thought my tough matches would never end, but I worked hard for this,” she would say.
16-10 in the opener is no position to go easy on a champion like Li Xuerui, no matter how many times you have beaten her. Especially, because you have beaten her, because that can lull you into mistakes that cost titles. Sindhu would do just that.
There were silly mistakes at the forecourt and the utterly slow shuttles would mean hitting from mid-court would become double-edged – the risk was shuttles would float long. Sindhu would also struggle when Xuerui hit a good length and allow eight points in quick time, not even making the Chinese do the hard work.
“In the second I conceded too big a lead, and then it was difficult to come back,” she would rue later as 4-13 down in the second got far too steep to catch up. Coach Gopichand would later say, “Overall she played well, but she played the same kind of game throughout. Once Li Xuerui started reading her it turned the tide.”
Sindhu is young and likes riding the momentum – which made getting the first set crucial to give herself a chance to fight later. But having lost the first, she would be a little lost on court and looked tired in her returns, if not in defense.
Gopichand would deny that though, saying, “I don’t think she was tired, she’s physically fit enough to last whole tournament. If anything she tried too hard.” Sindhu herself maintained she was beaten on experience. “I think Sindhu wasn’t experienced enough to change game at right moment,” the coach would concur.
Winning titles implies five good matches, even on bad days with the stiffest saved for the last. Sindhu would go further than what she had before this, but will need to learn quickly to not be satisfied with just the final.
The Odense crowd — save the Chinese fans —were firmly behind the tall, long-legged Indian who had beaten Carolina Marin in a stupendous match a day earlier.
They would swoon when she played the half smash that would fall within teasing distance of Xuerui, and the older Danes with creased faces would gush when Sindhu’s long limbs would play some unbelievable cross-courts at the net, the deception showing enough promise for the future. Also, they like the tall ones here in the world’s third tallest nation. That she had quietened Marin with such poise warmed the hearts of the shuttle-long Danes.
But Sindhu would play the loose shots and let her guard down – even if just a little bit — at the wrongest of times. “If you are leading against the likes of Xuerui, you try and thrash her out of the game. She’ll learn that every point of a match is important and no lead can be taken for granted,” coach Arvind Bhat would say later.
Still, India can hail the arrival of a second medal contender for Rio. The challenge now that Sindhu has beaten Tai Tzu Ying, Yihan Wang and Marin will be to hold her own despite being put through the radar.
The Chinese squad had turned up in full strength to cheer on Xuerui, and when the spare players get into ‘who screams loudest’ contests with Indian fans, you know the Chinese antennae are up and her game will be threadbared in detail. As will the ones in Spain and Taipei after the reverses they faced this week. “To beat Tai, Yihan and Marin on three consecutive days is fantastic. Yes, she’s lost the final, but she’s reached the final. She’s young, and will play for next 8-10 years and this match will help in experience,” Gopichand would say.
Sindhu has for some time been a threat to all the top players of the world. She can beat them all on her day. But she’ll need to start beating them on days that are not penned down in the stars, as her’s.