Four hours and 45 minutes. That’s how long PV Sindhu was on court at the 2018 All England Open, where her run ended in the semi-finals on Saturday with a three-game defeat to world No 2 Akane Yamaguchi.

Over four matches, Sindhu has been on court for 385 minutes. That’s seven minutes more than how much the two finalists – Yamaguchi and Tai Tzu Ying – have been on court together. By the end of Sindhu’s semi-final against Yamaguchi, which lasted an hour and 19 minutes, it was a wonder the Indian was still standing on her two legs.

Sindhu had admitted before leaving for Birmingham that she had been working on her fitness in the last few months. While the Badminton World Federation’s revised rules making it mandatory for the world’s top players to play in at least 12 tournaments in a year, was one of the reason behind the quest to improve her fitness, another reason was the growing length of Sindhu’s matches in the last one year.

Sindhu had played three marathon matches against Yamaguchi and her Japanese compatriot Nozomi Okuhara last year, in which the Indian came out on top only in one. That epic world championships final against Okuhara last August had clocked an hour and 50 minutes.

“Since the top-20 players have been very consistent, the matches are lasting close to two hours. Therefore, I’ve been paying more attention to my fitness,” Sindhu had said last month during an event in Mumbai, as quoted by the Times of India.

The result was evident at the All England Open. Sindhu’s superior fitness allowed her to engage Okuhara and Yamaguchi back-to-back in matches that lasted at least 79 minutes. She looked a lot sharper and able towards the end of both matches than she did last year, albeit those matches were slightly longer.

Another area of Sindhu’s game which has seen a marked improvement is her defence. The 22-year-old has been bombarded with body smashes throughout this tournament but her quick reflexes have allowed her to get the shuttle back in the opponent’s court on quite a few of those occasions.

Sindhu’s quickened hand speed has also allowed her to play a touch-and-withdraw game during defensive rallies. She has also done well to retrieve downward strokes hit towards her from her opponents, which are tougher to meet considering how tall she is. Her defence is still not as good as her attack but, in March, it looks far better than it did last season already.

Finishing off games

If there is one thing Sindhu needs to work on ahead of a long season, it is finishing off games when in a commanding position. Sindhu has been guilty on more than one occasion at the All England Open of allowing her opponents back into the match after taking a sizeable lead in games.

On Saturday, Sindhu was leading 16-8 in the first game after some superior attacking play. However, Yamaguchi clawed her way back into the game and made it 17-17 before Sindhu closed it out 21-19. Whether it was a lapse in concentration or her taking it easy, Sindhu paid for it in the end as Yamaguchi found her form despite losing the opening game.

In the second game, Yamaguchi started making Sindhu cover all corners of the court with diagonal runs, which further drained the Indian’s already strained battery. Yamaguchi, who is traditionally a very strong defensive player, can pack a punch in her attack and some of her smashes down the line were quite unretrievable.

Then again in the third game, Sindhu raced to a healthy lead of 13-7 and should really have closed the match out from there. However, Yamaguchi did not panic and waited for Sindhu, who was quite tired by then, to commit errors by engaging her in long rallies. Out of the dozen or so long rallies in Saturday’s match – two of which lasted 51 shots – Sindhu would not have won more than three or four. This was one of the main reasons for her loss.

Yamaguchi admitted after the match that she almost accepted defeat after trailing 7-13 in the final game but was glad she didn’t. “I just changed my mind and then I didn’t really make any mistakes from then on,” she was quoted as saying by the All England Open website.

“I became very careful, tried not to make any mistakes and I waited for my opponent’s mistakes, not really attacking. Maybe that was what saved me and got me the win,” she added.

Sindhu did not say much to the media apart from the usual “I need to come back stronger” and “it was anybody’s game” but she would be knowing exactly what she needs to work on for the rest of the season.

That said, she should not really be having many regrets after reaching her first ever semi-final at the All England Open. With a bit of luck – she could have saved a game point in the second but Yamaguchi’s drop shot hit the tape of the net and spilled over to Sindhu’s side – she could have even been in the final.