At 19-20 in the second game of the quarter-final at Tokyo Olympics, one would have expected the old PV Sindhu to play the waiting game. She has always had confidence in her retrieving skills and when the pressure is on the opponent to close out the game, giving them a chance to make an error can work.
Akane Yamaguchi had made the mistake on the first game point and no one would have been surprised if Sindhu opted to wait for another. Instead, the reigning world champion went for a booming down-the-line smash and then followed it up for a tap to level the scores, before going on to win the next two points and the match.
The Rio silver medallist is back in the Olympics semi-final again, with straight-game 21-13, 22-20 win against Japan’s Yamaguchi.
In the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics, Sindhu had spoken about how she had been working on some new strokes and also her own tactical understanding of the game with coach Park Tae-Sang at the Gachibowli Stadium. Some of those strokes were on display during her group matches and even against Mia Blichfeldt in the Round of 16, but those were relatively easy matches and the jury on them would still be out.
Both Sindhu and Yamaguchi had been involved in many-a-slugfest in their past 18 encounters and the Indian would have definitely been prepared for long rallies and probably a long match. But she would have also known that the Japanese former world No 1 was at a disadvantage in the opening game as she was playing from the faster side and would need pinpoint accuracy when pushing the shuttle to the backline.
This allowed Sindhu to stay patient in the starting exchanges and use Yamaguchi’s game plan to her advantage. The Japanese, understandably, would try to overcompensate after pushing the shuttle long during a rally and the Rio Olympics silver medallist was then prepared to play her quick half smashes or cross-court drives to score a point.
Having won the opening game rather convincingly, Sindhu started the second game with a positive mindset. The sixth seed used her powerful smashes and even some deceptive shots she has recently learned to grab the initiative. The soft drop, played with the score at 6-4, is clearly a new addition to her repertoire as is the crosscourt defensive drive.
It looked like Sindhu could cruise to victory when she took an 11-6 lead in the second game and then extended it to 14-8. But then came the best period of play for Yamaguchi as she threw herself around the court to retrieve the shuttle.
She won eight of the next nine points including the 54-stroke, 62-second rally to make it 14-15. It left both the players gasping for breath and Sindhu clearly needed more time to recover from it as a couple of unforced errors allowed Yamaguchi to take the lead.
To Sindhu’s credit, despite Yamaguchi engaging her in long rallies and putting pressure on her at the net, the Indian’s control while lifting the shuttle was mostly immaculate.
Even then Yamaguchi managed to punch above her weight to earn two game points. But the effort to get there had clearly drained her and she made an error on the first. Sindhu was alert to grab the opportunity and went for the kill to take the game into extra points.
“I wasn’t nervous even though she was at game point, my coach was saying: ‘It’s okay, keep the focus and you’ll get there’. He was constantly supporting me and that got me by and I’m happy I got back in two games,” Sindhu said after the match.
Another down-the-line half-smash, punishing the slight error in Yamaguchi’s push gave Sindhu the match point and she closed out the match with a deft defensive stroke. Even the regular use of the backhand serve helps her to close down the pushes on return and it was heartening to see her managing to play a couple of winners on the third shot of the rally.
It was interesting to note that Sindhu did not concede a single point whenever Yamaguchi played the body-smash, a tactic many players have successfully employed against the Indian in the past. In fact, she converted a defensive stroke into a cross-court winner to wrap the 56-minute encounter and once again underlined the fact that she is the player to beat in the big tournaments.
In the semi-final, she will play world No 1 Tai Tzu Ying who beat former world champion Ratchnok Intanon in a thriller. And if she can maintain the tempo and approach she had against Yamaguchi, the world champion would definitely start the match as the favourite.
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