As she inches closer to Indian badminton’s Holy Grail — the All England title — PV Sindhu’s Friday blockbuster with Akane Yamaguchi might be a good time to acknowledge that no one in Indian sport quite triggers the entertaining endorphins as the famous shuttler jamming with one of the Japanese.
There’s honour and glory and medals and money that all sport offers; but Sindhu seems to have an unspoken pact with the two Japanese women – Okuhara and Yamaguchi, to take their battles into the realms of last-ball sixes, penalty shootouts, Round 12 KOs or buzzer-beating 3Ps. Except, Sindhu is a one-person team packing it all in her 1 hour+ (76 mins on Friday) outings against the Nippon nutcrackers.
A loss wouldn’t have altered classification of this 2021 All England quarterfinal as a classic. But in signalling her return to being one of the game’s grandest contemporary show-women, Sindhu won the titanic clash 16-21, 21-16, 21-19 for good measure. The usually sedate coach Park Tae Sang was conducting the orchestra of her movements, but often grew animated like an audience mesmerized into his feisty version of ‘Bravo!’
Knowing her appetite for serotonin Sundays, Sindhu might well line up a final against Okuhara and turn it up a notch further. But a win over Yamaguchi is double dopamine, because it’s not just long, gladiatorial running rallies of Glasgow circa 2017 World Championships.
Yamaguchi, an audaciously attacking player, was beaten by a combative Sindhu in a romp of pugnacious retrieves alright, but the high notes were the aggressive pyro-strokes.
There’s a fluidity of hitting that’s slid smoothly into Sindhu’s game now – on days when the battles get ginormously gutsy, she parries off body attacks with agile racquet angles, she picks low retrieves like at 15-18 in the opener, dragging them from inches off the ground at her backline forehand corner and sending them back cross-court in a whiplash to finish a 23-shot rally. Yamaguchi had been sending every shuttle back, so Sindhu would send them mooning high to attempt to wrench out errors. The Indian though sharp on her forehand slice drops, would find herself trailing 21-16.
What probably makes this one of Sindhu’s finest matches of her career – even minus the context – is that Yamaguchi was playing a very high quality game herself, and Sindhu was going to need tremendous mental fortitude to overturn that initial reversal.
It can safely be said that the sheer class of both their games didn’t drop till the end. So after trailing from the 19 minute first set, Sindhu set about fighting back – never dominant, but always dogged.
The immediate difference was in her hand speed. Some of the reflex returns, the sheer speed with which she rocketed the shuttle flat back across the net, were breathtaking. It is well-known that Sindhu consciously imparts pace on her returns to wriggle out of trouble. She hit that fourth gear straight away at the start of the second to lead 11-6.
Yamaguchi was trying to break Sindhu’s will on the stretched lunge to the right forecourt net – an old Japanese ploy against her. It worked even in pegging her back, but Sindhu was countering meantime with sky-scraping punch clears that the 5’2″ Yamaguchi would send back by curving her spine, but they began taking a toll on her ability to monopolise the initiative in any rally.
The third seed’s cross-court smashes tend to be effective against Sindhu, but the sixth seed would deny her the length and opportunity. So the bird would go sailing high and take forever to dip at the backline from Sindhu’s punch clears. Meanwhile, she would turbocharge her follow-up stroke at the net.
Leading throughout in the second, Sindhu would suffer a few gasping long-rally drains on her energy, but not before denting Yamaguchi’s usually inexhaustible stubbornness. Because Sindhu’s attack is so in-your-face powerful, her persistent defense can deflate unexpecting opponents much more, and more than once in rallies of 25 shots, 29 and 36 even, the Indian would refuse to allow Yamaguchi to say that last word on their exchange.
At 16-21, 21-16, Sindhu would appear to be spent – misleading as it would turn out for the Japanese 23-year-old who reckoned she’d done enough to run through the decider. But Sindhu was in no mood to cave in. She would sit down on the bench in the break, as coach Park would encourage her to go wide for the lines.
One of Sindhu’s lesser known talents is her control of the shuttle in myriad conditions. So even as Yamaguchi over-hit to the backline with the drift from behind her, Sindhu had a grip on the shuttle when going for the lines. She would race to 15-11, but then allow herself to get annoyed by a distraction.
Chair umpire Chris Johannsen had already red-carded a doubles player earlier in the day for time-wasting. Sindhu had gotten his goat – at this exhausted juncture with a couple of previous delays in serving, and the chair would disallow her request to towel down, though she was sweating buckets.
Yamaguchi would pounce at the opportunity, and come right back into the match with four quick points to level at 15-15 in the decider. Sindhu smartly changed the shuttle even as Yamaguchi would pick 7 of the 9 points at that stage. Then the arms would start whirring double quick in anticipation of the finish. Sindhu is near-unstoppable for the Japanese and Tai Tzu even, when her power gets a shiny coat of speed. From leading 17-15 in the decider, Sindhu would be resisted by Yamaguchi who went up 18-17. At 19-all in badminton usually roofs collapse on the under-confident ones, but Yamaguchi needed to be tangled cleverly. Sindhu would lure her to the front corner and draw out an error on the flick return that sailed wide. A moment later it had gotten all too much for Yamaguchi who would end the misery with a return into the net.
Sindhu would roar in the empty stadium, baring her emotion and how much this win meant to her. Since the World Championships, Sindhu has copped the snides about how she’s drifted too far from the main pack. Carolina Marin had cleaved open the wound even more after the finals at Swiss Open.
Now, though it can be said with certainty, and without any preconditions of title wins, that Sindhu is back. The Yamaguchi win put her right back where she belongs – at the centre of badminton’s grandest entertaining universe.
Post Script: Pornpawee Chochuwong is a slippery semifinal opponent. She’s rarely troubled Sindhu in the past, except right after the Indian’s World title in 2019 at China Open. However, the young Thai has beaten Carolina Marin in her backyard in Spain for her first title in 2020. And she got stuck into Tai Tzu Ying at the World Tour Finals this January, blitzing the Taipese.
Sindhu though has swatted her aside in the last match they played. Okuhara plays Ratchanok in Semi 2. Another Sindhu vs Japan humdinger is looking imminent.
Shivani Naik… read more