The last time the All England saw a consecutive winner in women’s singles was a decade ago when Xie Xingfang of China completed a tripeat in 2007. Badminton ten years ago tied in with a body-type for women’s singles: tall athleticism was not just de rigueur, but almost a prerequisite for success at the highest level. Steeping smashes, long strides, a respectable reach owing to limb lengths ruled at the Big All: Camilla Martin, Zhou Mi, Gong Ruina, Xingfang of course, Tine Rasmussen and Yihan Wang with their loping stomps held sway. Even when Saina Nehwal fetched up, none of the Carolina Marin, Shixian Wang or Li Xuerui were under 5’5”.
PV Sindhu – with her monster game that oozes power and pluck when she gets going – ought to have fit right into that list. Instead it was Tai Tzu Ying (5’2”) downing Akane Yamaguchi (5’1”) 22-20, 21-13 on Sunday in the final at Birmingham. This is the Chinese Taipei girl’s second title, and her win last year was preceded by Nozomi Okuhara the previous season. What’s common to all three girls is that – they are no mugs at the supreme, power game: Tai Tzu has a famed six pack and a five-star whip kill, Yamaguchi’s smash-on-the-go is lethal, and Okuhara (though the least attacking of the trio) can generate an almighty spring action on the overhead from her backward-bent back. While speed and power were the fulcrums of the Rio Olympics final just two years ago, the game has dug deeper to delve into an alchemy of deception, effortlessness, shot angles and a vulcanized agility that compensates for all those tall games of recent yore.
This has shattered the confines of what constituted ideal physique, perfect range and a regimented style of play. Shuttle’s no longer the preserve of the vertically endowed. In exploring charming playing styles that do magic with wrists and forearms and not just the smashing shoulder, the three mentioned above as well as Chen Yufei of China, have liberated the sport from the tyranny of the tall, set it free from the single-minded severity of the strong smash.
Badminton is all wristy and poetic now, it’s rewarding superior court craft much more without sacrificing pace, power and physicality. Women in their early-20s are penning badminton ballads, having co-opted most of the men’s singles strokes and going beyond, to add generous doses of creativity to their shot-making just five years after the predictable ennui of a tall Chinese turning up and beating another tall Chinese for yet another title. When Tai Tzu swamped Akane with her bewitching guile and played out a top quality All England final, they made what followed look like a giant yawn. That, the tall Lin Dan was beaten by the tall Shi Yuqi in his 10th final held the limited charm of the passing of the Chinese baton. The game was mono-chromatic, nothing we’d not seen before.
But this is not entirely novel in the women’s game. When Pullela Gopichand won his All England in 2001, Gong Zhichao – who was 5’4” – had managed a double, after her gold at the Sydney Games (2000) playing with flair and a fair bit of deception. Not that those like 2004-8 Olympic champ Zhang Ning — another towering lady — weren’t accomplished in deception, but they liked to thwack at the bird and finish things off, using the wrist only to wriggle opponents into eventual submission.
Sindhu, hence, will need to go forward in her sport, negotiating games that are instinctive, creative, mercurial, moody and like in Tai Tzu’s case, bordering on the genius. The beauty of the Rio Games for the Indian will always be that she stomped down on Tai Tzu in pre-quarters and Okuhara in the semis on her way to the silver.
The defeats spurred on such resolves from both to fortify their talented games, that they are proving a handful for the Indian World No 3. Yamaguchi has her number the last two big occasions they faced off.
So a return to her bombarding ways from the Olympics – where Sindhu literally rained down aggression on the two – might not work as a plan all over again. The jump smashes that made her ever so looming at Rio, have almost never returned since. The efficacy of those jump smashes against the trio at this stage when Tai Tzu is World No 1 and winning just about everything and Akane is No 2 and winning most that Tai Tzu doesn’t while Okuhara has her name on the biggies (Worlds & Tour finals) – is also suspect.
It is evident that Sindhu is building on her endurance to give herself a chance in the inevitable third set deciders. But based on the All England finals – where both Tai Tzu and Yamaguchi were tired, but still played a heck of a match – the Indian is going to need more than staying power to get through these three.
Her defense and shot selection remain work in progress – though she’s come a mighty long way already from whence she started. It would be absurd to question her mental strength, given the epics she’s turned out in. Variety and deception, though, will be the long term projects, given how easily these three scythe through predictability.
Sunday finals validated the rankings when Tai Tzu downed Yamaguchi in straight sets, and upturned the Japanese girl’s strengths that buried Sindhu, into toying playdough. Yamaguchi had been so assured at the net on Saturday against Sindhu that she’d showed up a glaring gap in the Indian’s game. Tai Tzu demolished the 20-year-old’s net dominance.
The Chinese Taipei 23-year-old has what is an equivalent of ball sense in basketball – that innate ability to command the shuttle to perform tricks with effortless handwork. It’s how subcontinent cricketers know how to sweep. It’s a deep-rooted awareness of how the bird will behave and when and where it can be hit to make it fly exactly where you wish it to. She also is a master of deception – not just on where she’ll place the shuttle, but at what speed it’ll travel through the air. She can delay its flight, hold it a second longer in air and mix it all up with those wrists that are forever poised to send the bird straight, but often go 45 degrees cross with a last-second sleight of hand.
Such is her reputation (and how she won the first few points) that Yamaguchi had no choice but to camp herself midway on the T line, in anticipation of being sent back scurrying after the shuttle. Yamaguchi comes from the Japanese school of retrieving – it’s as if they learn to run and retrieve as toddlers. But on Sunday, she never settled at the net – barely ever making it in time for the lunge to pick the low shuttles.
She hadn’t forgotten overnight. It was simply the doubt that Tai Tzu had put in her mind that made her step gingerly towards the net, from the fear of constantly being packed off to the back-court.
While the errors at the net mounted, Tai Tzu was peppering her with her own wavy cross-courts – the forehand flick like a music conductor, that opens up the court by flapping the shuttle in the opposite front right corner. It’s a shot that Kidambi Srikanth plays often and Sindhu occasionally, but Tai Tzu finished Yamaguchi’s resistance by moving her left and right, and denying her the conviction she has at the net.
The two were beautifully level till today’s match on the circuit: 5- matches each. There was a symmetry to their results too: WLWLWWLLWL. And it comes from Yamaguchi not always being so circumspect when asserting her own classy game or being so woefully out of position to play the tight spinning dribbles that she botched 7 net returns.
It was at 17-10 in the second set that Yamaguchi thought she’d found an opening. It was a long rally, and the Japanese literally sent Tai Tzu to the four corners twice over, at such manic speed, that the Taipese almost looked rattled. Problem for stroke-makers like her is always in long rallies, when they’re made to earn what they’ve come to believe are easy points. This wasn’t your typical Sindhu match with humongous rallies, but it is in the long, tiring rallies that Tai Tzu betrayed just a moment of vulnerability.
Yamaguchi however would send a tired shot from all this plotting, into the net, and soon submit to the champion’s artistry. Not many have survived Tai Tzu’s maze puzzles, and natural wrist riddles. Since the last one year, Tai Tzu has cut down her erstwhile moody lapses and gotten tighter in her ability to endure the opponents’ plans of trying to frustrate her.
Sindhu might’ve gone down to Yamaguchi. But she might just be further from the title than what we think, given the Okuhara-Tai Tzu-Yamaguchi triad. Her game was built to counter the tall Chinese of the last generation (she famously scalped Yihan Wang multiple times.) Five-foot-somethings, though, are the stuff her nightmares currently are made of.