Glasgow: PV Sindhu lost.
For those who look at sport from the prism of win-loss statistics alone, the footnote at the end of the 110-minute epic would be yet another data entry that can be pulled out every time any discussion veers towards India’s BWF World Championship record.
For all others who were at the Emirates Arena on Sunday to watch the women’s singles final between Sindhu and eventual champion Nozomi Okuhara, it was such a draining experience that there was a complete silence in the stadium for the split second when the Indian went down on her knees to pick up a drop and the shuttle ended in the net.
Many would have needed that time to bring their thumping heart to normal or probably just make sense of what they had just witnessed before applauding Okuhara. The 22-year-old who became the first Japanese player to win a women’s singles title in the 40-year history of the championship.
And in the true sense of the phrase, Okuhara was the lone woman standing on that centre court after a brutal battle of skills, grit, and tenacity that forced both to bring out the last ounce of energy to survive every rally, every point, and every minute that they were on court.
Championship deciding matches in major tournaments are normally dogged affairs with players battling their nerves or happy taking the safest route of waiting for the opponent to make mistakes to pounce on.
But on Sunday, both Sindhu and Okuhara wasted little time in sizing each other up and instead just began a slugfest of attacking tosses, sliced drops and energy-sapping retrievals that left the crowd gasping for breath, probably more times than the minutes the second-longest match in the history of women’s singles badminton lasted.
For the records, Okuhara was also involved in the longest match (111 minutes) in the 2015 Malaysia Superseries Premier quarterfinal against Shixian Wang but had ended on the losing side.
But this was another day and even if Okuhara does not win any other title or reach another World Championship final, she could live to tell the tale of this encounter for years to come.
A brutal yet thrilling slugfest
Sindhu was the first to get off the mark taking six straight point to take an 11-5 lead before Okuhara’s sharp slice drops and back hand defence began pushing Sindhu to play a dozen extra shots to just finish a rally. The 22-year-old ended up making errors in the bargain and her opponent grabbed eight straight points to wrest the initiative and pocketed the first game when the Indian’s lift went out of the side-line.
The opening game that lasted for about 25 minute was, however, just an appetiser to the main course as both Sindhu and Okuhara raised the tempo from the beginning of the second game. The rallies began to get longer and the spectators who cheered their respective player after they took a slight upper hand in the rally lost steam even before the point was ultimately decided.
How difficult it was to win a point can be gauged from the fact that the second smash winner that Sindhu scored came at 13-13 in the second game, after the first at 1-1 in the first which Okuhara had let go thinking it was long.
The one point that probably embodied the essence of the encounter came at the dead end of the second game. Both players were already on court for over an hour and seven minutes and Okuhara was probably on a high after having saved three games points with a little assistance from the tape of the net.
Sindhu had regained the advantage and Okuhara began the rally by pushing the world number four Indian to the back court with attacking tosses and drives. Sindhu responded with her own version of forehand punches before the duo began scurrying all around the court to just keep the shuttle in play till making just another return became an ordeal. The 73-shot rally eventually ended with the Japanese putting a lift in the net and the 5000-capacity crowd in the stadium just stood on its feet while the winner of the point had no energy left to even exult.
By the time the third game started, all those who had walked out for a breather crowded in, sitting on the stairs or the floors or just standing wherever they could, not wanting to miss a single minute of action.
It was very clear that the limbs were tired and both Sindhu and Okuhara were looking to find that extra second of rest after every point, even at the cost of the chair umpires ire. The former ever went up for a challenge twice just to take a break as it was clear even to the naked eye that the line judge had got his decision spot on.
It ultimately boiled down to umpire warning Sindhu for time wasting, a decision the crowd could not help but boo as the general consensus was that the time-wasting tactics were completely justifiable on purely humanitarian grounds.
When Okuhara was asked about what was going on in her mind during that third game, the 22-year-old said she probably went into a trance after looking at the duration of the match on the scoreboard midway through the decider. “When I saw the time on the board I thought where is this game going and wondered whether this game is ever going to end. So I thought I will now just enjoy playing every point and not bother about anything else.”
There could not have been any other explanation for when the umpire allowed a break to the two players at 19-19 in the third game, Okuhara returned to the court and played a few shadow strokes before lining up to serve.
‘Lot to feel proud of’
The Japanese had the presence of mind to play to the galleries at the end of those 110-minutes when she decided to answer the post-match interviewer in her broken English only to thank the crowd and show them what the title meant to her.
On her part, Sindhu wondered if there was anything she could have done different in the match to change the way it ended.
“It was anybody’s game. It’s upsetting to lose, but you can’t say anything at the end of such a match. It was never over from both sides. The third game went to 20-all. Every point was tough and we were both not letting go. Obviously anybody would aim for a gold because this is the final of the World Championship, but that last moment changed everything.
“I used to always back myself in long matches. But today maybe even she believed in herself. Both physically and mentally this was a tough match, with those long tosses and drops. I finally realised she’s never going to leave any shuttle. But with this confidence I know I’ll learn much more going forward,” said Sindhu, who managed to save one match point but failed on the second occasion.
Sindhu’s mentor and chief national coach Pullela Gopichand probably had the last word on the match when he said, “It finally came to the point that it had to end. It ended badly for Sindhu but there is a lot to feel proud of what she did out there.
“There will be many more world championships and only if Sindhu doesn’t win this title in her career, I will regret this loss.”