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Thursday, April 22, 2021

Before possible final against Marin, PV Sindhu faces another European challenge

PV Sindhu is set to meet the talented Mia Blichfeldt in the semi-finals of the ongoing Swiss Open in what is a strong European pushback to Asian dominance.

Written by Shivani Naik |
Updated: March 6, 2021 10:20:35 am
PV Sindhu had also lost at the semifinal at the 2018 edition. (File)

Much of beating Carolina Marin – or attempting to – for PV Sindhu in 2021, is going to be about reorienting her focus from the Orient. In this case, the distinctly pervasive Asian style of play.

Over this weekend, if they both go the distance and line up on Sunday for the finals, the Indian will have played two European players back to back – starting with Mia Blichfeldt in the Saturday semis, and Marin, should she clear out Thai fighter Pornpawee Chochuwong.

Mia isn’t exactly Marin Lite in all aspects. She isn’t even a mini-Camilla Martin of 20 years later from when the inspirational Dane picked silver in Sydney. But the 23-year-old has that defiant streak in her that makes her take immense pride in taking down an Asian rival.

Every 20 years it would seem, Danish women’s singles raises hopes of breaking the Asian stranglehold – Lene Koppen circa 1980, Martin in 2000, with Tine Baun blooming late for her All England triumphs around 2010.

But it took Carolina Marin at the Rio Olympics to convince a continent that they could not only scythe through the Asian maze, but also do it their own way. Marin’s sheer stubbornness and ferocious flamboyance has now caught on around her, and imprinted impressionable minds like Mia Blichfeldt convincing them that it’s all in the stubborn bull-headed mind.

Word has it that Spanish youngster Clara Azurmendi, is prepping to take over the baton. But meantime in neighbouring Denmark, from a tiny but proud town of Solrod, comes Mia Blichfeldt.

It’s not merely geography that sets the European challengers apart from the Asian contenders and bunches them together as thoroughly determined rivals, out to puncture Asian hegemony. It is this chip on the shoulder, that the European women’s singles players (unlike the Dane men who’ve been on an even keel in global titles) carry which positively propels them to doing their darnest to not be cast aside by the Asians.

Twice against the Indians now, Mia has raised her game in rebellion. The first instance was in mentally breaking down Saina Nehwal at the last World Championship by the sheer dint of not giving up in the mid-set, biting into her match point and chewing off her claims.

But more recently in January, it was against Sindhu at Thailand, that Mia bared her incisors in a madly contested second set, stalking the Indian all the way into a decider, and later showing her the door early in the first of the Super 1000s. The score: after starting comfortably at 21-16, Sindhu had no clue she would be hit with a 24-26, 13-21 train.

For 22 back and forth points in the second set, Sindhu and Mia were at it, trading jabs, eyeball to eyeball, no inch given till all the way. Mia had 3 set points, Sindhu flubbed her 2 match points, eventually blinking to allow Mia a toe in the doorway.

She would smash the door open in the decider, leaving Sindhu gasping after 5-5, claiming the final set 21-13. The World No 12, had harried and hustled Nehwal similarly at the World’s. Her game is still work-in-progress, given she’s not won a title above a Super 100. But while she’s catching up on the Carolina curve – she’s 23 years old, by which time Marin was Olympic champion – more than once, she’s expressed her desire to not merely make up numbers at the Olympics, but to head there with an aim to win.

Mia Blichfeldt comes from a tiny but proud town of Solrod in Denmark. (Twitter/OlympicChannel)

Foot injuries have slowed her progress. And a deeper thinker, Blichfeldt weighed her options, deciding to pursue a degree in finance, because the pressure of making badminton an all-or-nothing was wreaking her nerves.

While she shadows ‘Caro’ around Europe, listening to her, learning from her one day, and challenging her for the European title the next, Mia has some eclectic interests like knitting, even as Frida Kahlo, as a cultural totem, looms large on her legend. She is known to think independently, while the pandemic year helped her go a tad easy on herself – physically. She used to hate losing and was often punishing on herself before she calmed down and put in more scientific responses to her self-critical assessments.

Speaking to Olympic Channel last October, Mia explained her ‘zoning’ methods during tournaments: “Normally I shut down all my social media and turn off the phone because I hate when my family or friends are texting me and saying like, ‘oh you played well, it’s okay, next time’. And I feel ugh, I had my chance right now. And I can be very mean to myself that way. I’m working on that because I don’t want to tear myself down. I want to rebuild myself instead.”

2016 sent tremors of change not just through Asia, but also ignited fiery ambitions in Europe. “When I watched Carolina win at Rio, I was like, ‘i want to do that too’. I want to be on top and have that gold medal in my hand,” she says in the video.

But more than her dogged game and burning ambition, it is the technical inspiration she’s riffing off Marin that should worry Sindhu a little. Mia would hit the nail on the head: “I think Carolina has given us (Europeans) another way to play it. Because normally all the Asian players are like, ‘we play it in all four corners and we play long matches.’ And also the Japanese style is to keep running. Whereas Carolina put more speed into it, more aggression. The aggressive mindset, like, I don’t want to be under pressure. I want to (put the) pressure (on) you (opponent). She gave that to the sport.”

“Why go to an Olympic and don’t believe that you can win a medal?” she asks lasering into the video.

For Sindhu, who is yet to find a way to beat Marin in a top final (Olympic or World Championship), Mia Blichfeldt fetches up in the semis as a promo of what is to come the next day (should she win). Marin’s relentless speed has bothered her the most; in Mia Blichfeldt, the pace of the rallies might not be as punishing. But the obsession to not give in or give up, is plentiful in the upcoming Dane.

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