One: let go; Two: let rip. PV Sindhu has been learning how to break down the decisive moments of what is arguably the best badminton being played in women’s singles – easily the highest quality – and displayed the upgrade at one of the highest stages of badminton: the All England quarterfinals against Nozomi Okuhara. No less. The match lived up to its billing, as badminton’s never-say-die girls produced yet another classic at Birmingham – this edition of the titanic battle finishing with the billboard flashing: Sindhu beat Okuhara 20-22, 21-18, 21-18.
The Glaswegian gladiators from seven months ago gave another exhibition of outrageous strokeplay, an unearthly consistency as Sindhu emerged blazing from the foundry. If you weren’t lipreading watching on TV and can’t X-ray right into the Indian champion’s young mind, the brain ticked with two instructions: Let go (of the mistakes). Next, let rip (at the shuttle).
A thriller was promised and delivered – as the duo chose what can be the second biggest stage in a non-Olympic year to play out this 84-minute epic. Between the Scotland saga and the battle of Birmingham, Sindhu had gone back to the trenches, into a bootcamp of the mind, while the body did its scything, whirring thing and added layers of endurance. This wasn’t as long as the other titanic games the two have enthralled in. But it was never going to be enough for Sindhu’s fans that she was consistently playing mighty marathons at the highest stage. She was never going to be judged for showing valour in vain. The literally fractional, last-second mistake of losing – of finishing runner-up – was what would be routinely thrown at her as she lost both World Championships and Dubai Super Series Finals. PV Sindhu was battling the unfair tag of ‘choker’, though there were no mental meltdowns on show. So she broke down the key moments with her coach into nano-seconds, slapping a fortifying coat of grit to her muscle memory in reaction to a lost point.
It involved erasing short-term memory of a point botched, of a rally lost. It included slashing at a dipping shuttle. Like a good fairytale, Sindhu’s story of the day started with a first-set loss – her second 20-22 reverse to begin a match in three days. She was leading 20-19 in the opener, striking the shuttle at over 8 feet, after throwing an aerial challenge at the nearly 10 inch shorter Okuhara: hitting the high tosses consistently and then killing with steep giant downers. But she would then tap it into the net for 20-20. This was followed by the edge of seat drama of two challenges grazing the tramlines. Both reviews would go in Okuhara’s favour, and once again from a dominant position, the Indian world No 3 stared at a score glumly reading set down.
Both the women and the rest of the world know by now that this was not the end of the contest. But pulling off a reprisal is easier said than done. Sindhu was prepared. “I have been working on the mental side in such moments,” she would tell the BWF website after the match. “The coach has been telling me that this will happen. At times, when you hit your taps out, (shots) on which you actually had to get points, and you lose the point, you lose your confidence and just get nervous. Then, the coach has been telling me: “Just let go, the point is over. Finished. I’ve been practising these moments and it’s getting better,” she would say.
The idea was to use the shoulders, not to slump, but to slash the immediate moment later. In the opener, like tentative jabbing pugilists, Sindhu had looked vulnerable against the body smashes, where bulk of Okuhara’s points came from, and downright ungainly picking the high shots on her backhand as Okuhara kept targeting the unseen halo behind the 5’11’ Indian’s head. There was a ridiculous overhead attempt to return from a shuttle that was so easily in the curve of her backhand and finally the classic trap – send her back and then ambush her on her forehead at the net.
Measure for measure
But the reason why Sindhu and Okuhara battles are so attractive to follow is that these early errors melt away as they strike consistency and take the game to a higher, enchanted level. So, Sindhu would race to a 10-9 lead in the second by playing flurries of net exchanges charging the forecourt and putting a decisive unreturnable menace to her cross-court smashes. The half smashes and flick drops acquired consistency, as she started chipping away at a 13-16 deficit with hard-earned points.
The rallies had been long and punishing from the very start. But now the sheer acceleration and power of the hitting went up a notch, as neither relented. Sindhu though was putting in the extra effort of dragging Okuhara’s field of play to the left lane and forcing the eye-blink with shots that would sail wide or drift long after a dozen back and forths. Decisive at the net, undeterred in her retrieving, Sindhu was accumulating the kind of winners that were sowing doubts in the Japanese world champion’s mind.
“Against her, the tactic is to basically be patient enough and just keep on going and keep the shuttle in the court. You just have to be very consistent until the last minute. Even if you hit the shuttle down, I’ve learnt to tell myself it’s not over,” she would explain to BWF later. It is here that the coach’s advice to go for broke came in. “Any shuttle – you can just take it (inches) off (floor), you can just whack it out. This happened to me at times. Until the last point, until the shuttle hit the ground, you be ready to play.” Okuhara was making her errors, but Sindhu was drawing them out – by being plain stubborn and swinging wildly but bewitchingly. Okuhara’s short drops started sailing out as Sindhu literally cornered her on the lines levelling the match at 21-18.
Okuhara had come into the match having played 66 minutes in two matches, Sindhu had almost double the work rate of 110. The third set ought to have looked exhausting. These two, the world knows, have a fifth gear.
Sindhu would fall back to 1-4 in the decider, but fight back to 5-6 once again using her height in high toss exchanges to go up 10-8 Sindhu by now was biting and baiting at the net with eyeball-to-eyeball punches. It was nothing short of a contact sport, as the two took turns slitting and scything down smashes as the other retrieved low in high energy exchanges. They were also contesting the air-space along the lanes, picking shuttles high in the air, and sending them flying, though Sindhu had the variation of the half smashes that she mixed well with the full-blooded howitzers.
Coach Gopichand was rolling his sweaty palms, and as Okuhara took the 16-12 lead with a gust of points, the Indian retorted with four in a bunch of her own. Things reached the familiar 18-18 stage. It’s where the Indian has fallen back earlier. Not choked, but been checked by her opponents picking from their wide repertoire of strokes. It’s here that Sindhu aced the net. All her previous big losses have come on the forecourt parries. Not this time. She would scoop one deftly to make it 19-18, and looking not so tired, hit a drop right on line. Okuhara contested it in a challenge. But the match was Sindhu’s as she calmly punched the air, breathed deep and walked away to her sea of fans, who had witnessed a classic and were swept away.
The strategy, Sindhu would say later, wasn’t for the whole game, but every point. “It has to be each point. If you go thinking a certain thing will happen, the opposite might happen,” she would say. Sindhu’s seen the falls, and hence can talk you through the rise. “There’s been a lot of situations where I was 20-18 leading and lost the game.One moment you are leading 20-19 and then hitting into the net. You get a bit nervous. I was just thinking it’s not over till last moment.
Physically and mentally when at times you lose these type of matches, it really hits you.” she would say. “But you come back much more stronger and don’t make mistakes again and again,” she would say. In the semis, there’s the other Japanese to beat – Akane Yamaguchi. “It’s not over yet,” she said before she left.
The Chinese men’s singles players ended up erecting a wall at Birmingham with the storming of three from the powerhouse in the All England semis. Indian HS Prannoy was left in the wake of this onslaught when he went down 22-20, 16-21, 21-33 in three to a spectacular comeback from the newest of those names, Huang Yuxiang.
After accounting for Kidambi Srikanth, the 25 year old ranked 42 Huang next blitzed Prannoy, the only Indian left in the Last 8 in the crunch. The Indian looked on course to make his first All England semis, leading 16-10 in the decider after he had claimed the opener 22-20.
But in what was a sensational rally, Huang narrowed the gap like a shark closes in and made his move at 17-19. Huang picked three points in a row ramping up his game to leapfrog the strapping Aggressive Indian to lead 20-19. Prannoy would show heart here and try to regain the initiative. But he couldn’t string together the two points needed to go across the line and lost the set 23-21.
It was a decent campaign for the Indian but he will kick himself for not managing to stomp further despite putting himself in a good position. Meanwhile, Olympic and former World champ Chen Long was the one to miss out in the crowded Chinese quarters. He lost in straight sets to compatriot Shi Yuqi, while Chinese great Lin Dan shut out old foe Lee Chen Wong in two sets as well.