Saina Nehwal was, by her own description, dead. What began as a high, harmless serve tossed by PV Sindhu at 19-17 in the second game very quickly descended into an exhibition of wily stroke-making that, with each shot, swung from being beautiful to brutal. Sindhu needed the point to get to within a point of forcing a decider. Saina had to somehow avoid that, knowing fully well that her creaky body would not last if the match went into the third game.
It was another plot-twist to an already explosive, high-intensity gold medal match. Sindhu’s deep shots to the back court would be replied with cheeky drop shots, aimed largely at her backhand. Saina’s deception would be matched by Sindhu’s doggedness. The red and blue were purely coincidental, but the colours of Sindhu and Saina’s shirts added to the symbolism. They, for most parts, resembled boxers who went toe to toe, adding another dramatic chapter to what is turning into a great rivalry of their sport.
After 64 shots, the point was decided with a backhand jab from midcourt that Sindhu, even with her considerable wingspan, could not reach. Saina didn’t even have the energy to celebrate. She hunched on her knees, taking deep breaths, and looked over at the other side of the net where she found Sindhu, too, standing motionless.
This proved to be the defining point of the match, for Sindhu was gradually clawing her way back in it. Instead, Saina managed to peg her back and eventually beat Sindhu 21-18 23-21 in 56 minutes to win her second, and India’s 26th, gold medal of the Gold Coast Games.
The Saina-Sindhu rivalry has been independent of their individual forms. While Sindhu has been a better achiever in the last couple of years, Saina has got the better of her, winning three out of the four matches they’d played before Sunday’s final. But as is the case, the most recent iteration is always the most important. And it was no different in this case.
Another vexing silver
For Sindhu, this match was crucial purely to reverse her finals record. The defeats at the Olympics, World Championships and even the National Championships in the gold medal matches have put some serious question marks over her preparedness for the big games.
For Saina, a win would also be a reassurance of her improving fitness. Since July last year, Saina said she has suffered groin, hip and knee injuries. “It was a bad scenario where I was not able to focus on my matches,” Saina said.
But crucially, the win was crucial for Saina to stay relevant. The pressure of playing Sindhu, she admits, is huge. “Hundreds of things go through my head before I play her. If I lose, the first thing would be, ‘oh Saina has lost… oh Saina is becoming old… Saina should retire…’ I think there are 100 things which would be written for me. For her, it’s still okay because she is still coming up,” Saina said.
Knowing that reputation was at stake once again, she entered the court on Sunday with a taped knee, as a consequence of playing almost non-stop for the last 10 days, starting with the team events at the Commonwealth Games.
Saturday’s three-setter against Scotland’s Kirsty Gilmour further added to her fatigue but, surprisingly, Saina began the final sharper of the two, showing relentless aggression from the first point. Sindhu struggled to read the drift, which cost her four points out of the first 11, including a service that sailed over the backline.
Those that did not sail over would land midcourt at a comfortable height for Saina, who would finish it off with ruthless efficiency. Saina held a five-point advantage at the interval and looked to be cruising when leading 20-15. Sindhu though regained some momentum towards the end, winning three straight points, but as was the case throughout the game, her backhand push drifted over the backline once again, handing over the first game to Saina.
Sindhu appeared to have gained confidence from the small burst in the first game. Playing from the other side, drift wasn’t an issue anymore. But Saina had already switched to another plan — she targeted Sindhu’s backhand, especially with the drop shots were beautifully disguised.
A couple of times, Sindhu instinctively looked at her corner but helplessly stared at two vacant chairs. There would be no prompting from coach Pullela Gopichand, who had chosen to sit out the match where both his wards were fighting for a gold.
Sindhu also appeared hesitant to put much weight on her ankle, which she injured just a couple of days before leaving for Gold Coast. But she denied that injury made any difference. “I think I was completely fine so nothing to complain about that. It was good that I was totally healed when I started playing the individual matches to be honest,” she said.
The second game was a lot closer than the first, with the rallies getting longer and Sindhu getting into her groove. The 64-shot rally was followed up with another quick rally that ended with spectacular cross-court smash by Sindhu to earn a game point at 20-19.
The uncharacteristic errors once again crept into Sindhu’s game, who conceded two cheap points by plunking the shuttle out of play, giving Saina her first match point at 21-20. But the duo played out another mental rally, in which a falling and stumbling Sindhu retrieved three deep smashes before forcing an error out of Saina.
Sindhu, though, was unable to keep up the intensity and ultimately, it was an unforced error that cost her the match – at 22-21, what looked like a routine return drifted a little to the right and fell in-between the tramlines.
Saina broke into an impromptu jig on court. “At that point, I was thinking, ‘oh my god, I have to finish this’ because the situation was getting tougher,” she said. “If there was third game, I’d say it would be 60-40 in her favour. Especially because of that long rally! Oh my god! I was dead…dead.”
But Saina came back from it. As she has so often done.
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