Epics have ordinary, even commonplace beginnings. The one on Sunday, at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow, Scotland, begins with a low PV Sindhu service – the most common start to a point, badminton’s version of e4. Nozomi Okuhara responds with a wristy forehand lift to mid-court – and with that begins a battle for space, for domination, with the score favoring Sindhu 21-20 and game-point hanging on the outcome.
Metaphorists routinely twin sport with war. At the core of any battle strategy is control of strategically vital space – which, for a badminton player is an area about two feet in diameter and about ten feet back from the net. It is the centre of her half of the court, the place from which she can best cover all corners with equal felicity. It is the badminton player’s safe space.
In early exchanges, Okuhara tries to push Sindhu to the far corner on the backhand side. It is a ploy the Japanese star has used repeatedly to trouble her opponent - but this time Sindhu takes the shuttle early with a round-the-head forehand toss deep into Okuhara territory. The two trade six shots apiece with neither being able to push the other out of their safe space. From somewhere in the packed stands, a fan bangs his noisemaker in time to the strokes, a percussive underpinning to the whistle of racquet cleaving air and the ping of shuttle off the strings.
If the best minds in the business had tried to create a final match-up of stark contrasts, they couldn’t have done better than draw Sindhu to face Okuhara. The one is tall (179 cm), with legs that reach all the way to the ground and the wingspan of the wandering albatross. Sindhu is creature of the air, at her best when using the springs in her heels to propel herself high into her element to unleash smashes of venomous power. Okuhara is petite, diminutive at 156 cm, with a very low centre of gravity – a creature of the earth, with the ability to go low on all sides and recover with the speed and boneless flexibility of a Slinky toy.
On court Sindhu is an alpha presence, dominating space till she seems to fill her half of the court to overflowing; Okuhara is unobtrusive, almost invisible till the shuttle drops into empty space when suddenly there she is, a will-o’-the-wisp materializing from thin air at the critical moment.
With her seventh shot of the rally, Sindhu finally pushes Okuhara deep into her backhand corner and settles down to work the shuttle around – deep toss, angled drop, forehand corner, backhand corner, testing the limits of her opponent’s court coverage, probing with surgical skill for an opening. “What a rally,” the commentator says sotto voce as it builds. Okuhara’s 17th stroke is an impossibly angled drop-smash that skims the net; Sindhu’s long legs get her to the shuttle at full stretch, low to the ground, for a scarcely believable retrieve that draws a long ‘aaah’ from the crowd. The momentum shifts; it is Okuhara’s turn to test Sindhu with half-smashes to mid-court on the left and right and a deceitful drop-smash from deep in her forehand court.
Patterns of play build and morph into the next, faster than the mind can fully comprehend in real time. It is call and response at its best as each tests every skill the other possesses, probes every chink, explores every weakness.
For both players, it must feel like an examination they have sat for many times in the past. The two met for the first time in July 2012 at the Asia Youth Under-19 championships. On that occasion Sindhu lost the first game 18-21, then won the next two 21-17, 22-20. Okuhara aced their first three meetings as adults – the Hong Kong Open in 2014, the Malaysia Masters in 2015 and the Asia Team Championships 2016 in Hyderabad. Sindhu clawed back to parity, winning first at the Rio Olympics semi-finals in August 2016, then at the Singapore Open in April this year. Only once, in Rio, has a match-up between the two not gone the full three-game distance.
Over this period each has tested the other’s net craft and court coverage, power and deception, speed and skill, nerve and will. And after all that time, across six matches and a total of 590 contested points, the two are dead even. And even here, in the final of the Worlds, the two have already scripted a 41-stroke novella in the first game, a 43-shot masterpiece in the second.
A little past midpoint of that rally, each has run out of questions to ask the other. Now it is as if they have stopped being opponents and have come together as collaborators, cooperatively choreographing a ballet of skill and style and speed and grace and an almost superhuman endurance. As they push each other beyond known limits, as each finds in this moment of supreme trial the untapped extremes of their own ability, as impossible skill draws improbable retrieve, the ‘aahs’ and ‘oohs’ from the crowd come so thick and fast that they merge into a ceaseless susurration.
For all the contrasts in their styles, Sindhu and Okuhara complement each other to perfection. Sindhu’s known forte is power – but the Japanese for all her elfin air has a venomous smash of her own, as she showed in the 4th point of the first game when she unleashed two full-bodied smashes that Sindhu somehow defended, before Okuhara finished off the point with a drop smash. Since Hawkeye began measuring smashes, Sindhu’s fastest on record is a 349 kmph monster recorded at the Denmark Open in 2015; Okuhara’s best is a 347 kmph effort at the 2015 Japan Open. When these two trade smashes from midcourt, the shuttle, traveling at speeds over 300 kmph, has just 20 feet to cross before the opponent has to react.
Okuhara’s strength, meanwhile, is deception, deceit enabled by the fast hands of a professional pickpocket. She produced a portrait-worthy example of that skill when, at 18-all in the first game, she played a reverse-sliced-drop-smash (count that, it is four separate strokes combined into one) that put the desperately diving Sindhu on all fours. (Before the medal is won and lost, both players will have spent more time on their hands and knees than at any point in their lives since they first learnt to crawl.) And yet, Sindhu’s deception and wristwork is no less potent, as evidenced for instance by the disguised fast drop she played earlier, at 11-7.
Their various skills were best showcased on the 21st point of the first game, with Sindhu receiving 11-9 up. Okuhara produced two successive drives from close to the net, each flying low to Sindhu’s backhand and forcing reflexive lunging retrieves. And then, with no perceptible change in action, Okuhara drove the shuttle cross-court, cramping Sindhu on the forehand side. The Indian ace uncoiled from her previous lunge, pivoted in place and with her back to the net, produced a no-look net-skimming return into vacant space.
“I don’t believe it!”, gasped the commentator as Okuhara slumped to the floor of the court, her head thrown back in utter disbelief while Sindhu stalked her side of the court with a “What else do you got, kid?” look on her face. (Sindhu was to play a similar stroke, only even better, deep into the second game – a retrieve of such blinding speed, made possible by reflexes honed by hours of practising solo against three of the best male shuttlers in India, that the Japanese coaches appealed for a double touch. Not because they saw a double, because there was none to see, but because it was scarcely conceivable that such a stroke could even be played fairly.)
The rally extends past the 50-stroke mark and then beyond 60 strokes. It has developed into a battle of attrition so gruelling that in the stands, the fan who had been enthusiastically banging his noisemakers in time to the shots has run out of energy and given up. There is lead in their legs and an aching emptiness in their lungs; neither has anything left to give, yet neither is willing to give the other an inch. It is as if they are playing on because they are totally rapt in a narrative of their own scripting and can’t stop turning the page, can’t stop from sending the shuttle back one more time.
“Unbelievable!”, says the commentator of a Sindhu retrieve from deep in the backhand court – but what does she know what these two can do? Because no sooner has she said this than Okuhara produces a retrieve that defies superlatives. Finally, the Japanese from midcourt smashes deep and steep to Sindhu’s forehand; the Indian lunges low into a no-look backhand cross-court drop that Okuhara somehow gets to, but can’t get enough on to clear the net.
Sindhu bends double, head hanging between her knees, chest heaving for the air she is desperately short of. She sneaks a look at her opponent – and sees Okuhara slumping to the ground, curling into a foetal position and lying there as if she doesn’t want to get up again this side of Christmas. After one minute and 17:07 seconds of the sort of pulsating drama rarely seen in competitive sport Sindhu has restored parity; it is one game-all and each player has won 41 of the 82 points contested thus far. An epic has ended, but only so it can begin all over again.
The conclusion to an epic
Okuhara begins game three the way she has begun every passage of play: standing to attention on the sidelines, talking herself through what she will do and how her opponent will react – a performance that ends with the saikeirei, the 45-degree bow signifying deep reverence.
The opening passages are brisk, the points are racked up fast and the serve changes over rapidly, almost as if neither player wants to be drawn into another epic. “Calm”, says coach Pullela Gopichand from the sidelines each time he catches his ward’s eye, and Sindhu follows the advice – but only for a point or maybe two, before she is sucked back into the maelstrom.
The two players contest another stunning rally with the score locked at 11-all. Okuhara loses that one and ends with hands on knees, body bent double, her whole frame shaking in exhaustion. From a contest of skills, this has now morphed into a collision of wills.
There comes a moment in sport – not always, but just often enough to keep us watching and hoping and dreaming – when a contest develops a storyline, a narrative, a substance greater than the sum of its individual parts, when it transcends a mere game and turns into an epic. Two 22-year-olds, twinned by talent and desire, had by now pushed all of us deep into that place. “How on earth are these two producing this level of badminton?”, the commentator was moved to exclaim as Sindhu and Okuhara relentlessly pushed each other in the 39th point of the third game, with the score deadlocked on 19-all.
As the match pushed close to the two-hour mark, the irresistible force that is Sindhu was blowing herself out against the indomitable object that is Okuhara. Even Sindhu, arguably the fittest badminton player, perhaps even sportsperson, we have seen in India, was done, spent, exhausted. She took to pushing the boundaries of the 20-second rule with increasing frequency so she could recoup; she did it one time too many and drew a yellow card from an umpire as stern as a schoolmarm and as pedantically precise about “20 seconds” as a Swiss chronometer.
And yet after all that time and all that superhuman effort, the two contested 40 points in the third game without being able to break the deadlock. And then it happened – an error by Sindhu gave her opponent the match point. They call such errors “forced” – the impersonal keepers of score sheets have no space to record that in games such as these, it is forced by exhaustion.
For one last time, the two showcased every skill they possessed in a lung-busting 35-stroke rally – but this time, it was Sindhu who found the net with a lunging retrieve, and it was finally all over.
“I am tired,” said Okuhara with a smile when asked what she had to say to her fans. Later Sindhu, admiration evident in her words, was to tell the media of Okuhara: “She just wasn’t gonna go away!”, as apt a tribute to a young star who played the game of her life as any you will find.
Two silver medals in 12 months
In Rio, in a similar situation, it was Sindhu who from the losing end of an exhausting duel with Carolina Marin found the spirit to smile, to wave to the crowd, to pick up her opponent’s discarded racquet and return it, then envelop Marin in a hug, to gentle her down from the intense emotionalism of the moment. Here, with a similar silver to her name, it was Sindhu in deep distress and in need of comfort, of a hug.
Therein lies the story of her evolution over the last twelve months. In Rio, she was a talent, a “player of potential” looking for validation, for affirmation, and the silver she earned was a sign to herself that she had arrived. In the twelve months since, she has worked relentlessly and become, in her own mind, champion-material. Silver will no longer make her smile because she believes now that she can be the best, that she can beat the best, that gold is the only metal worth her while.
That kind of drive can produce the occasional stumble. In his book The Meaning of Sport, Simon Barnes rubbishes the notion that victory is about who wants it more. “Competition is about who wants it less,” Barnes wrote, “the one who can take the competition in her stride, the one with the relaxed muscles and uncluttered mind.” 12 months since Rio, it was Sindhu who wanted it just that little bit more in Glasgow. It is not a fault so much as an indication of how far she has come in her own estimation; for her the highest honours are no longer a dream but a logical outcome of the intense effort she is putting into her game.
Her time will come. And during that journey to the inevitable, she will likely script more epics – with Marin, with the elegant Tai Tzu-ying, with Okuhara herself. For what we witnessed on Sunday has the feel of unfinished business between these two; the Illiad is over, but the Odyssey is yet to come.
For an afterword to this epic, turn again to Simon Barnes and what he wrote of what such supremely gifted sportspersons bequeath to us: “Fans, disbelieving of what they had just seen, and beatific that they were alive and awake and watching as boundaries were stretched and ‘impossible’ was redefined.”
It was that kind of a night.
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