At the Guangzhou badminton season-ender World Tour Finals, the tall and regal PV Sindhu has fetched up again, sporting some serious shot selection chops and a confident smile both of which Nozomi Okuhara will find hard to wipe off, given the Indian’s newly-found confidence. Sindhu’s is not the gait of the haunted and repeatedly defeated — she looks ready to grab what’s eluded her for so long: a championship trophy.
All assorted emotions that accompany a loss Sindhu has already undergaone, ticked on every yellow emoji, while proudly owning her six silvers. There was an audacious toss near the end of her semifinal win against Thai Ratchanok Intanon, that has given badminton watchers a good feeling because it reflected astute shot selection through this week. She, of the notorious poor choice of strokes-fame, of the hellish inopportune moments magnified under the global spotlight, of that lonely walk back and practised grace in accepting runner-up cheques, is ready for the turnaround.
Despite being India’s most consistent athlete at the world level for two years in a brutally exacting sport, Sindhu can never escape being asked about the imperfection of silver, something she’s determined to change now. The confidence with which she’s played is evident in how she’s looked fit, free of injury, comfortable in long, sustained rallies, and making those wisened choices in picking strokes. Once in the second game of her 21-16, 25-23 semifinal win, when Ratchanok flicked one across catching her wrong-footed, Sindhu even grinned in appreciation (the match was threatening to vamoose away; and went from 15-13 to 25-23 neck and neck).
Sindhu would recall later how an older version of her’s would’ve been scrambled mentally from nervousness at losing a lead. “I’ve improved a bit in (toughing out end-games). Now even if I lose leads, I just say, ‘she’s taken a good point, so why not appreciate it rather than thinking why didn’t it go my way? Basically I used to keep thinking and tended to lose next 2-3 points,” she says, the confidence shining through in her humble, good-humoured acceptance of opponents doing their thing, and not twiddling thumbs, while she is disintegrating on the world stage.
Ratchanok, who became world champion at 17 (she’s 23 now), and had won the year-ending event at 18, is a certified wrist-wizard. On Saturday, Sindhu brought tricks of her own to the party. One such was letting it rip. “Some points I felt like I was making mistakes on high toss or drops. So I thought why not just hit and see what happens,” she laughed. This confidence – instead of the desperate scramble – is down to the World No 6 having her wits about her, while cutting down on mistakes – “Keeping shuttle in court.”
While Sindhu murmured something about getting strategy right – though when she squares off against Okuhara, coaches can get stunned into silence. “Patience is important, and I have to put the shuttle in the court,” Sindhu stated the simplicity of the maze.
Carolina Marin, Okuhara, Akane Yamaguchi and Tai Tzu-Ying have all passed through the revolving door of making the big finals. Besides the last five major title clashes – two Worlds, an Olympics, the Asiad and the last World Tour Finals – even Saina Nehwal landed at the Commonwealth Games and returned satisfied. Sindhu however is searching for her breakthrough title, and it’s the most memorable of those rivals that’s standing across the net.
Okuhara runs and makes Sindhu run, but she can’t be classified as stinging or dangerous. While coach Pullela Gopichand won’t reveal his cards, former player Aparna Popat insists that even if it threatens to be a long match, and shuttles will recoil back, Sindhu needs to pepper the long rallies with pointed shots. “Get a good 4-5 point lead when you reach 18, and play the last three points solidly. She needs to go for her shots though; every 3-4 strokes go for those set-up shots even if not winners. She can’t be lulled into push-lift routine,” she warns.
Former international Aravind Bhat, though, reckons long punishing rallies are inevitable – the ennui, frustration of them included. Adding that her confidence and body language is good and shall suffice, he says, “She, of course, needs to play faster and hit harder.
But she should never look for shorter rallies. Expect a game like (Kento) Momota’s or Chen Long’s, never hurrying,” he says. This is down to Okuhara’s unique history with Sindhu. Ranked No 2, the two have 6 wins apiece – and have literally traded wins last six times (Sindhu W,L,W,L,W,L). Sindhu barely allowed the Glasgow final to turn into a mental monster for her, even exacting revenge at the Worlds this year when she made her second final. Okuhara’s injured right knee isn’t holding her back anymore. There’s no way to check mental fortitude – no diagnostics lab or gadget can deliver those results. But the finals look poised for another epic contest.
“She’s come through four quality matches,” Gopichand says. “Beating Tai was most satisfying, but both Yamaguchi and Ratchanok are class players, and she’s beaten them in pressure games. Even Beiwen Zhang has beaten Sindhu a couple of times this year, so that was tricky match. Against Okuhara, it will be a tough match, but she’s playing well,” he added. The coach saw a spark at 22-all “It was important at that stage to keep focusing on strategy, be brave and play right strokes. Good to see her do that,” he said. Once through the door, the coach knows Sindhu will have to battle this one again, on her own. At worst, he’ll scream instructions hoarse. At best, he’ll sit back and applaud.