Here we are. It’s unbelievable that it has been almost a year since the last badminton world championships; almost a year since that marathon women’s singles final in Glasgow between PV Sindhu and Nozomi Okuhara, which lasted an hour and 50 minutes and is probably still fresh in the minds of badminton lovers around the world.
And yet, here we are, at the cusp of the 2018 BWF World Championships in Nanjing, China. Unfortunately, yet another Sindhu versus Okuhara slugfest in the final isn’t possible this time, because the two are placed in the same quarter of the 64-member draw and are scheduled to meet in the quarter-finals.
Sindhu has played six other international finals between Glasgow 2017 and Nanjing 2018, which isn’t an unimpressive record by any means, but she has been able to win only one of them – the Korea Open last year, when she beat Okuhara in the final. After that tournament, she has lost to Akane Yamaguchi two times, and Beiwen Zhang, Saina Nehwal and Okuhara once each in finals.
Pattern to defeats
Leave aside the losses, what is more alarming is that there has been a pattern in most of them. In the India Open final, Beiwen Zhang, who is not an attacking player, managed to take Sindhu by surprise as she went for smashes whenever she got an opportunity.
Saina Nehwal, in the Commonwealth Games final, also went on an unnatural all-out attack, not allowing the big-hitting Sindhu to control play. Nehwal looked to finish rallies off as soon as possible, knowing that her 28-year-old legs did not have enough juice in them to engage her 22-year-old opponent in longer ones.
A similar ploy was followed by Okuhara in the Thailand Open final earlier this month, as she mixed up her rally game with bursts of aggression in between. Knowing that her natural game was not going to be enough against Sindhu, who has worked on her own defence and fitness, Okuhara wasn’t scared to innovate and ended up catching Sindhu unawares by a mix of attacking and defensive play. The Japanese eventually won the match in straight games.
Even in the quarter-finals of the Indonesia Open, China’s He Bingjiao, another rally player, went on the attack and did not allow Sindhu to take the initiative. There have also been been rumours that Chinese shuttlers are made to practice with sparring partners who stand on elevated platforms across the net to simulate playing against tall players such as Sindhu and Olympic champion Carolina Marin.
The title favourite at Nanjing, world No 1 Tai Tzu Ying, was technically far superior to Sindhu in their Malaysia Open semi-final in June, even though the Indian was able to take her to three games. Tai Tzu’s deceptive shots were so marvellous that Sindhu found it difficult to read which ones were drops and which were pushes.
While Sindhu’s opponents have been able to read her game and adapt theirs accordingly to beat her, the same can’t be said about the world No 5. It is difficult to pinpoint anything different that Sindhu has tried in the last six weeks on the Asian circuit that could start showing results in the next month or two.
However, chief national coach Pullela Gopichand is working on a new programme for Sindhu to overcome her deficiencies ahead of the world championships and Asian Games, according to Amrish Shinde, one of the national coaches who travelled with Sindhu to the Thailand Open. “You will see a difference in the next few tournaments,” he said.
Shinde believes that Sindhu is at par with the world’s best in terms of her strokes but needs to sustain herself in the longer rallies. “Against Tai Tzu and Okuhara, you don’t get a point in four or five strokes right from the start. For every point there is a rally of at least 10-15 strokes minimum,” he said.
When the rallies go on for 20-25 strokes or more, that’s where Sindhu needs to find a way to play those two extra shots that win you the point. “Okuhara was able to play those two extra strokes [in Thailand]. In slower conditions in that hall, both players had good rallies but Okuhara was slightly better in her stroke-making. That made the difference,” Shinde said.
Conditions in Nanjing are going to be similar to Thailand, where the shuttles will travel slowly. With just a couple of weeks between the Thailand Open and the world championships, Sindhu hasn’t got a lot of time to work on her game and technique.
But that’s one of the reasons why Sindhu is such an intimidating opponent, apart from her build and tall frame. She has managed to get the kind of results she has so far without being technically proficient. “A few tweaks in her technique and she will probably be unstoppable,” said Aparna Popat, a nine-time former national champion.
Along with her technique, Sindhu also needs to work on her body language when she is down in a match. In all her three most recent defeats – against Tai Tzu Ying, He Bingjiao and Nozomi Okuhara – it did not seem as if Sindhu was totally convinced about her own ability to fight back. The self-belief, which was very apparent till last season even when she was trailing in a match, was not visible, and this is not lost on her opponents.
Sindhu also needs to learn to think for herself while on court, especially in crunch situations, and not always rely on her coach’s inputs. At 20-20 in the deciding game, there is only so much that a coach can do or say.
Sindhu’s inability to think on her feet was especially evident during her two defeats to Nehwal in the last nine months, at the senior national championships in November and the Commonwealth Games in April. While Nehwal was able to use her experience to come out of tight spots, Sindhu looked like a deer in headlights.
Sindhu enters the 2018 world championships as one of the title favourites on paper, but to do that she would potentially have to get past the likes of Sung Ji Hyun, Okuhara, Yamaguchi and Tai Tzu. But on current form, that does seem like a steep task for the 23-year-old.
“Top players know that ups and downs will happen, but it’s just a question of – can you pick yourself up?” said Popat. “Once she finds a way to win again, she will be okay.”
The question is: Will she be able to do that in time for the Worlds, or even the Asian Games next month?