At 17-16 in the decider of her All England Open semi-final against Akane Yamaguchi, PV Sindhu controlled the point for most part of the rally and perfectly anticipated a tap on the dribble, only to hit it in the net. It was a mistake made thanks to tired limbs and probably a more tired mind but the 22-year-old was willing to take her chances.
True, that in the bargain Sindhu wasted a seven-point advantage and committed nine unforced errors in the decider. But there were similar number of points that she won by being proactive. If not for that approach, the Indian may have had little chance to get this far against Yamaguchi.
The three big losses against the Japanese stars – Nozomi Okuhara at the World Championship, and Yamaguchi at the World Superseries Finals and All England – apart most players are using a similar template against Sindhu: Engage the 22-year-old in long rallies to put pressure on that tall frame and hope that she crumbles.
The Japanese hurdle
To her credit, Sindhu has worked tirelessly in building the strength and stamina to last these marathon encounters day in and day out but seems to have hit a hurdle against the Japanese, who are masters of this game.
It isn’t the case that Sindhu hasn’t beaten them before. She has a 5-5 head to head record against Okuhara and leads Yamaguchi 6-4 despite the two recently losses.
But the two have managed to get the better of the Indian is that Okuhara and Yamaguchi are extremely consistent and don’t make too many errors – something that Sindhu could exploit against Thailand’s Nitchnon Jindapol in the second round of the All England.
One of the areas the coaching staff had identified after the World Championship loss against Okuhara was the need for improvement in hand speed when Sindhu plays her strokes and the Rio Olympics silver medallist has clearly worked on that.
The other striking problem for Sindhu during the two big finals was that she was extremely passive in her approach, playing the waiting game against players who were not going to crack under pressure or make a mistake.
In the World Championship final, Sindhu did not play any of her booming smashes against Okuhara in the decider and the pattern was repeated in Dubai – though there were a couple of smashes during the Superseries Finals – with the Indian’s body language not really exuding confidence.
But at the All England Open, Sindhu forced Okuhara to think differently by attacking her more on the net and even trying to catch her on the wrong up with her net lifts.
It was a similar approach of going on an all out attack that gave Sindhu a brilliant start against Yamaguchi but for reasons best known to her, the 22-year-old dropped her guard after opening up a 16-8 lead. The approach of looking for some quick points had also forced the Japanese world No 2 into committing a couple of uncharacteristic errors before the Indian allowed her to make a comeback by going for a safety-first approach and the length of the rallies continued to go upwards.
Sindhu hardly won points on the longer rallies as Yamaguchi came up with some improbabe net lifts when under pressure. More importantly, unlike Okuhara, the world No 2 also could employ the jump smash to finish off the rallies when the opportunity presented itself to her.
The immediate reaction to defeat would be that Sindhu once again lost out to an opponent with superior fitness. Having played an average of an hour and two minutes every round, no one expected the Indian to be at her physical best but if she has to win big tournaments she would have to see through such matches.
Mind you, every player who has watched her play against the Japanese would want to employ similar tactics of tiring Sindhu out with long rallies since it is a fact that a taller player will always feel exhausted with the constant lunging and stretching they have to do during a rally.
And there is a limit to how much Sindhu can work on her fitness to last these matches day in and day out in her quest to win major titles.
This is where the proactive approach in the third game against Okuhara and even Yamaguchi stood out as Sindhu was willing to take that extra risk and even willing to push herself to hit the big smashes, a quality that had helped her reach the final in Rio Olympics.
World No 1 and All England champion Tai Tzu Ying showed how to counter the long rallies game plan of Yamaguchi in the final by counter punching the Japanese and forcing her to play out of her comfort zone.
For that, Sindhu may probably have to increase her repertoire of strokes and think out of the box. Chief coach Pullela Gopichand would already been thinking on those lines but being proactive was a good start.