PV Sindhu lost her third major final in a span of 18 months and it is pretty inevitable that questions would be raised on whether the 22-year-old lacks the mental resolve to see through such high-pressure matches and come out as champion.
The argument can be built around the two crucial mistakes Sindhu made at the net in the closing stages of the BWF World Championship final against Nozomi Okuhara and again against Akane Yamaguchi in the year-ending BWF Superseries Finals in Dubai on Sunday when at 19-19, she ended up hitting the shuttle in the net without really being forced into making a mistake.
“I think they were simple mistakes and she could have put it on other side. It would have been another story but having said that she was physically drained to have fresh legs and mind,” coach Gopichand told Telanga Today after the one-hour-34-minute encounter.
But it would be very easy to jump to that conclusion and blame the player for the losses and overlook a lot of factors that ultimately contribute to a result.
There is no denying the fact that the pressure of playing in such major finals is far higher than playing in the summit clashes of regular Superseries tournaments and it does add to the physical fatigue that a player suffers from during marathon matches.
Japanese have figured out Sindhu
The 2016 Rio Olympics final loss against Carolina Marin was probably an outcome of Sindhu relaxing a bit after winning the first game and the Spaniard simply launching a counter that the Indian had no answer to.
But this year, the Japanese have shown a template on how to tackle tall players like Sindhu – by exploiting the inherent problem in performing full range of motion by making them move to all four corners of the court at high pace and forcing them to commit errors.
On Sunday, once Sindhu won the opening game, Yamaguchi’s coach Park Joo-Bong was seen urging the 20-year-old to cut down on her smashes and focus on making her opponent stretch more than required with aggressive tosses and sharp cross-court drops on either side of the court.
It was similar ploy adopted by Okuhara in the final game in Glasgow once it was clear that both the players were surviving on reserve energy. All the eventual champion did was to make Sindhu bend a lot, putting more pressure on her frame and slowing down her reflexes.
That directly transformed in Sindhu’s downward strokes losing the bite and a similar pattern emerged against Yamaguchi once the rallies began to get longer. In the first game, the 22-year-old won a lot of points with her trademark jump smashes and the quickfire half-smashes that she could unleash when the Japanese erred in length.
But mid-way through the second game, Yamaguchi began finding a better length and started using her speed and low centre of gravity to control the rallies, while Sindhu was already gasping with a cold also affecting her overall breathing pattern.
“I could tell that Sindhu was getting a little bit slower but I had enough energy and had practised a lot for her,” Yamaguchi went on to say after the match. “I’d trained on my speed to move a lot quickly because I knew my opponent was tall.”
It is common knowledge that taller players with longer limbs may have a better reach but struggle with dynamic stability of the torso as fatigue sets in. That is precisely why they are not good movers and the constant lunging and bending required in badminton can take a far higher toll on their body during a match than short players.
That is precisely why many tall players don’t try to reach all the shots and even world champion Viktor Axelsen, who is 1.94 metres tall with longer legs, has many a times let go of a point to conserve his energy for the whole match.
Testament to Sindhu’s fitness
It is a testament to Sindhu’s overall fitness that she chased down every shuttle till the end despite being out of breath during rallies. On any other day she could have come out triumphant had Yamaguchi lowered her guard a little or the Indian was bit lucky when attacking the lines.
In the past, Sindhu had won many long matches with the latest being an 83-minute encounter against Okuhara in the Korea Superseries final to avenge the World Championship loss. In fact, the 22-year-old has won 38 of her 65 matches that have lasted over an hour and has shown enough mental strength to pull out victories even against the top players.
Gopichand and his coaching staff is aware of the challenges Sindhu faces due to her height and have worked a lot on adding muscle mass in her lower limbs, and working on her hand speed to counter the rally players to win points faster.
Sindhu is just 22 and as Gopichand constantly points out that the World and Olympics silver medallist is still a work in progress. Apart from faster hand speed, the world No 3 would probably need a bit of deception to counter the growing tendency of opponents to draw her into longer matches.
Probably a break for off-season training to work on overall body mass to support the long torso could help in sorting the problem earlier. But given the tight tournament schedule in 2018, Sindhu would have to make do with whatever time she will have at hand to tackle the problem.
There is also no denying the fact that such a heart-breaking loss would probably play longer on her mind when she makes it another major final in the coming years. But hopefully, just like she overcame the fears of losing matches she was expected to easily win, Sindhu should be able to find a way out sooner than later.