There are very few badminton matches that exhaust you as a spectator. Its not the duration of these matches that matter in the final analysis but the intensity with which they are fought and the topsy turvy nature of the plot that makes everyone invest emotionally in the match and come out drained irrespective of the result.
PV Sindhu and Nozomi Okuhara have somehow mastered the art of playing out these humdingers every time they face off on the international stage. While the epic World Championship final in Glasgow is the most memorable of the 10 encounters they had so far, the story was no different in the Korea Open final a month later or the All England quarterfinal on Friday.
In both the encounters since that heartbreak in August, Sindhu has come out triumphant and it was particularly pleasing to see how the 22-year-old successfully countered Okuhara’s strengths with a more proactive approach despite chasing the match for most of the one hour and 24 minutes duration.
Going the distance
Just like the earlier nine encounters – – out of which seven went into the third game – between the two, Sindhu and Okuhara were both prepared for long rallies and multiple exchanges with the Indian relying on her aggressive instincts while the world champion was happy to grind her opponent down with attacking tosses and sliced drops.
And it looked like Okuhara’s game plan was working when the 23-year-old suddenly raised the tempo of the rallies in the second game to take a 18-16 lead and even in the decider when she led 12-16 with Sindhu hunching on her knees after every point lost.
But on both occasions, Sindhu found another gear and a tactic that unsettled Okuhara and allowed the Indian to string a series of points to get out of the hole.
In the second game, she simply pushed Okuhara on the back foot by playing flatter strokes and showed very good defensive skills to force the Japanese to go for the kill earlier than she would have loved to and induced errors.
While in the decider, Sindhu was quick to close down on the net, played the shuttle downwards and ensured that Okuhara had no chance of pushing her back with those flat tosses. The points at 17-18 showed how much Sindhu had learnt from that world championship defeat as the world No 3 was prepared to lunge for those shuttles on the net rather than taking the conservative approach of playing the waiting game.
That meant that with her height advantage she was able to catch Okuhara on the wrong foot with the net lift when the Japanese was clearly anticipating a dribble from that tight position and presented Sindhu with an open court to kill the shuttle and level the scores.
It was a similar strategy that worked for Sindhu on the final point of the match with Okuhara not really in a position to return the angled push from Sindhu’s backhand as the shuttle fell on the line to hand her the winning point.
Another tough battle awaits Sindhu
Explaining her game plan after the match, Sindhu admitted that she was prepared for the long rallies as Okuhara rarely gives up but she was working out her strategy after every point as both of them knew each others game well and needed something special on every point to out-think the opponent.
“You have to strategise your game with each point. At that point of time if you go thinking that something might happen and if actually things happen opposite to your planning then you have to immediately change,” she said after the match.
It probably also helped that Sindhu has worked a lot on her hand speed in the last few months and that allows her to play the strokes a lot quicker and with more power.
But now the real challenge for Sindhu would be to find those physical and mental reserves all over again in the semi-final where another Japanese Akane Yamaguchi, who defeated her in marathon encounter in the Dubai Superseries Finals summit clash in December last year, awaits.
The second seed, who packed off former world champion Carolina Marin in straight games, plays a similar style of game to Okuhara but has a far superior attack and can push the pace of the rallies several notches up.
It would be interesting to see how Sindhu recovers from the physically and mentally-draining quarterfinal encounter. But one thing is sure. Sindhu has showed that she can fight back from the dead and if she can physically take the load of another gruelling encounter, she could well be standing on one side of the net on Sunday trying to become the first Indian woman to win the coveted championship.
For now we can enjoy and at the same time recover from a gruelling badminton match and be prepared for another marathon in a few hours from now.