Pusarla Venkata Sindhu leaped. She roared in joy. She pumped her fist.
Over the last few days in Rio de Janeiro, it has become her trademark image. Returning every smash, leaping forward towards the net, retrieving everything they threw at her. Skipping around, rushing to every corner, in control, every time, all the time. And then, finishing it off with a pumped fist and steely aggression on her face.
They have thrown all they could at her. First Tai Tzu Ying in the pre-quarter-final, then Yihan Wang in the quarter-final, and then Nozomi Okuhara in the semi-final. Ranked eighth, second and sixth in the world, respectively. But you wouldn't know that if you watched Sindhu take them on.
She has been brutal. She has dominated. Her opponents have scattered, gamely trying to fight back, only to fall over and exchange looks of frustration. Sindhu is world No. 10, but she has made a mockery of the rankings. Ying, Yihan and Okuhara have been decimated – the number of games they have won against her collectively at the Olympics: zero.
But Sindhu’s defining trait has been her aggression. Not a single step back. Forward, ahead, breathing fire. She has attacked and attacked and only attacked, without any second thought. Her opponents have never had breathing space. Whenever Okuhara thought she could come back in the semi-final on Thursday, Sindhu just stepped it up another notch. At 10-10 in the second set, she might have thought she had a chance. Sindhu then went one level higher, if possible, and won a monstrous eleven points in a row. Clinical, brutal and incredibly effective.
Sindhu didn't play this way the last time she clashed against each of these players. You could see it in the way her opponents reacted. Wide-eyed and unaware of what had hit them. Unable to comprehend what was happening. This was the World no. 10, who was only supposed to offer an initial fight and then fade away the end.
But Sindhu’s fire only grew stronger and by the time the referee called the game, she was blasting away anyone who stood in her way. It will be the defining image of this Olympics campaign for India – Sindhu, fists tightly clenched, fire in her eyes, roaring in triumph.
For long she has remained in the shadow of India’s other great female badminton star, Saina Nehwal. When Nehwal exited in the group stage, the predictions were dire. India’s chances of a badminton medal had petered out, went the common refrain.
No one sent that memo to Sindhu though. Nor to Srikanth Kidambi, for that matter. In his own way, Kidambi took the charge forward. Even against the super Lin Dan – master of the deceptive stroke – in the quarter-finals of the men’s singles, he got nervous in the opening game but then valiantly fought back to take the match to the third game. It was an epic performance, albeit in a losing cause. It was, perhaps, that initial moment of nervousness that ultimately did him in at the end.
And that is where Sindhu differed. Think of the draw she faced and the way she approached each match. Nerves of steel. Not even once did she look tentative or afraid of the scale at which she was expected to perform. She was in the spotlight and she loved it. She battled for every point and only kept on looking for the next one. Untamed, aggressive, wild, and finally...triumphant.
Sindhu will be the first Indian woman in all of Olympic history to win an individual gold or silver medal. But something seems clear: she is not in the mood for second-best. Not right now, not in this form, not here in Rio. She is not going to settle. Not now and not anytime soon.
Her opponent in the final on Friday, Carolina Marin of Spain, has not dropped a game yet – as befits the World No. 1. Sindhu has lost only one, but back in the dim history of the group stage. Marin is a powerhouse.
But Sindhu right now is a meteor heading towards only one purpose with terminal velocity. There will be collision. And do not be surprised if, once the smoke clears, it is yet again Sindhu who remains standing. Triumphant, a louder roar, arms raised, fists pumping. This time, with a gold medal around her neck.
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