The Indian and Chinese badminton coaches are, currently, akin to mega-city mayors who know they have sure winners to flaunt as soon as their countries’ tallest skyscrapers start rising on their skyline. Badminton courts around the world are buzzing with similarly dizzying excitement.
At 182 cm, Sun Yu (19) is China’s and their women’s coach, Chen Jin’s, big hope for the future in badminton. Standing just 4 cm shorter is PV Sindhu — perhaps P Gopichand’s most ambitious project, given the amount of versatility, speed and strength that he is looking to lend to the long-limbed 20-year-old.
On Saturday, they played their fifth match against each other and even though the Indian lost a marathon 1 hour 19 minute humdinger 18-21, 21-12, 21-19 at the Swiss Open in Basel, their rivalry has the makings of a classic for the sheer audacity of the performances that their coaches are trying to squeeze out of these athletes.
They were 2-2 going into the Basel semifinal, but even if the Chinese (ranked 26) put her snout marginally ahead of the World No 9 Indian this weekend, no one can tell for sure which way the next one will go. Both have the flapping reach — badminton courts seem to shrink in their striding wake. But the astounding aspects of their game hardly seem to be related to their reach — though their face-off is always the match-up between the world’s tallest women’s players.
Sindhu’s off-season training has significantly improved her lateral striding, footwork and defence as was evidenced this week, so there is none of the lumbering locomotion associated with tall athletes. She pounces on the shuttle, both in her backcourt and when shuffling to the net, like a jungle cat, and her whippish racquet-speed betrays none of the stiff bearing of those that are vertically gifted but sluggish.
The Chinese ought to be worried when the Indian gets going against some of their shorter players — they’re all 5’7” plus, but none at 5’11”. She has the ability to combine her speed and height with the carefully cultivated aggression to loom over them and is quick in picking shuttles. It’s one reason why she’s beaten all of the top Chinese players.
Sun Yu isn’t the most fluid movers on court. But with a crouching style of play, she rarely seems unbalanced achieving that centre of gravity with an easy low stance. One would think that a 6-plus footer would also naturally rely on steep smashing as a weapon but that’s not for Sun Yu. The tall girl displayed a wide array of deceptive shots — drops straight and cross-court, as well as a lethal overhead shot on which she achieved unbelievable angles with her supple wrists. It means that she has none of the predictability of a tall shuttler’s game.
Sindhu, meanwhile, made the contest closer — first bridging a 12-17 deficit in the opener to win that set and later, while defying the Chinese in the decider and giving her an almighty scare as she threatened to eat up the lead with a string of winners — by dominating the net.
It was a tight-spinning dribble in the end — perhaps Sun Yu’s only success at the net, albeit on a big point — that took her to match point. But both girls are playing an extremely athletic and elastically agile game for a pair that’s graduating out of the awkward teen years.
There’s moments when they are on court, when the clumsiness, unsure-footedness and confusion of tall athlete come to the fore. But as their games get polished and chiselled, the two are redefining notions of a tall athlete in badminton, with a spunky attitude boosting their 6-foot frames.
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