PV Sindhu is just one match away from turning 2017 from being one of her best years on the international badminton circuit to, in fact, the best.
The 22-year-old has already won two Superseries titles this year apart from bagging the World Championship silver, having lost a marathon final against Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara. And the world No 3 will have another shuttler from the land of the Rising Sun to counter on Sunday as she chases the year-ending BWF World Superseries Finals title in Dubai.
Sindhu seems to have hit a purple patch in Dubai this week after a hard-fought victory over China’s He Bingjiao in the opening group encounter, swatting aside her next three opponents with much disdain.
She has relied on her quick hands and superior forecourt movements to dominate the likes of Sayaka Sato and even Chen Yufei in the semifinal on Saturday.
There is definitely a spring in the steps of Sindhu in Dubai and that can be noticed in not just the way the lanky Indian is using her height to find winners with her half smashes but also the frequency with which she is willing to follow those down the line smashes with a tap finish.
On Saturday, she also showed the smartness to break the rhythm of Chen in the second game when the Chinese began pushing her to the back court with a combination of flat tosses and then followed it up with quick drops to win the longest rally of the match.
To her credit, Sindhu hung on. And when the Chinese gave her an opening with an unwarranted challenge, the Indian pushed the envelope as far as possible by delaying her return to the court and even got a yellow card in the bargain.
But that was enough for Sindhu to catch her breath and push for the two points required to seal the final berth and become the third Indian to reach the summit clash of the year-end event.
Saina Nehwal had lost the 2011 final against Yihan Wang while the mixed doubles combination of Jwala Gutta and V Diju had faltered at the same stage in 2009. Sindhu now has the opportunity to go a step further than her compatriots.
And the semi-final against Chen gave enough indications of the strength and weaknesses of the 22-year-old.
“It was a good quality match, even though it was over in straight games, there were a lot of long rallies. I’m happy to be the first Indian in the women’s singles final here (in Dubai); I would like to become the first Indian to win the title as well,” she was quoted as saying by the BWF.
“I was smart to take two or three points when she caught up with me,” she added.
In the final against Yamaguchi, Sindhu would have to do that once again and probably with far better precision and speed if she has to tame the 20-year-old world No 2.
Sindhu has a 4-2 lead in the head-to-head between the two and completely decimated the Japanese in the last Group encounter in Dubai.
But it would be fool-hardy to judge the form book or Sindhu’s chances in the final on the basis of that encounter in which it was pretty clear that Yamaguchi wasn’t really looking for a slug-fest.
Both Sindhu and Yamaguchi had already qualified for the final four and with the final positioning in the group making little difference to the semi-final draw, the Japanese clearly decided to conserve her energy for the business end of the tournament.
The benefits of her choice were visible on Saturday when Yamaguchi staged a comeback from 11-16 in the decider to pack off former world champion Ratchnok Intanon of Thailand in the first semi-final that lasted an hour and 12 minutes.
Though Yamaguchi would be probably more tired than Sindhu before the summit clash, the stocky 20-year-old should have enough energy in her reserves to make Sindhu earn every point.
Yamaguchi’s game plan would be simply to push Sindhu into playing fast paced rallies and use the cross court drops to put pressure on that tall frame. It was a ploy that Okuhara managed to successfully execute in the World Championship final in Glasgow.
The 20-year-old may not be as mature as Okuhara in planning her points but more than makes up for that with her lightning fast reflexes and power in her drives and smashes. She can also transform into a retrieving machine when under pressure and it was her ability to stretch points that saw her come back against Ratchnok on Saturday.
One thing is pretty clear that Sindhu would have to be prepared for long rallies and probably another marathon encounter. “I’m not going to expect anything [on Sunday]. It might be a long match. It won’t be as easy as it was yesterday (against Yamaguchi) when I had a 11-2 lead,” she said when asked about the final.
Sindhu isn’t new to playing long matches with changing fortunes that keep the spectators on the edge and players gasping for breathe after every rally at the business end of the encounter.
Against Okuhara and even Carolina Marin in the Rio Olympics final, the Indian was guilty of not packing enough punch in her downward strokes.
But since the loss in Glasgow, Sindhu, along with coaches Pullela Gopichand and Mulyo Handoyo, has worked hard to improve her hand speed while playing those deft drops and half smashes and would hope that all the hard work they have put in comes together one last time this year to sign off on a high.