“The level in women’s badminton has increased. The top 10-15 players are at the same level and it’s just about who plays well and gives their best on the day that decides results.”
PV Sindhu’s words after avenging her 2017 world championship final defeat against Nozomi Okuhara in the quarter-finals of the 2018 edition on Friday made sense.
Ever since their epic Worlds final in Glasgow last year, which Okuhara won after an hour and 50 minutes of play, the two shuttlers had met four times till Nanjing 2018 came around and had shared the spoils.
In the semi-finals on Saturday, Sindhu will be up against another Japanese, the world No 2 Akane Yamaguchi. In the last two seasons, Sindhu and Yamaguchi have a 3-3 head-to-head count, albeit the diminutive Japanese having won the more important encounters at the World Superseries Finals and the All England Open.
Even the one women’s singles player who looked untouchable until the 2018 Worlds started has been knocked out at the end uartertinal stqge. Top-ranked Tai Tzu Ying, who was unbeaten for six tournaments coming into Nanjing, was shown the door by China’s He Bingjiao, a result that not many would have put their hard-earned money on.
That result has, however, opened the door for any of the four semi finalists to lay their hands on the title and should motivate both Sindhu and Yamaguchi to go for ththe kill in their last four encounter.
On Friday, Sindhu was the better player – even if only just – against Okuhara. Yamaguchi herself was taken to three games by China’s Chen Yufei in their quarter-final before the Japanese found the extra gear to silence the home crowd and come out on top.
While Yamaguchi had beaten Sindhu in their last encounter at the All England Open earlier this year, predicting a result for Saturday’s semi-final is next to impossible.
While Sindhu did extremely well to get past Okuhara in straight games, her game was not flawless. Like she had done in the final of the Thailand Open last month, the Japanese went to her tried-and-tested method of drawing Sindhu forward and then unleashing her trademark reverse slice to the Indian’s left.
Sindhu countered with her own variety of soft shots and drops, mixed with her natural aggressive play, but against Yamaguchi she will have to do a lot more. The world No 2 will challenge the Indian on both sides with her slices.
The Olympic silver medallist could have done better with her net dribbles against Okuhara, where she lost a few points. This is an area where India’s doubles coach Tan Kim Her, who was sitting next to chief national coach Pullela Gopichand for the match, could help the tall Hyderabadi.
Sindhu would also need to match Yamaguchi’s pin-point accuracy while going for attacking shots – an area where the Indian gave away easy points against Okuhara.
During her quarter-final against Chen Yufei on Friday, Yamaguchi retrieved two shuttles that she had no business reaching. One was a shot towards the right back-court corner, with Yamaguchi in the left fore-court, but the the Japanese turned, lunged forward and played a behind-the-back winner that was outrageous.
The second instance had Chen Yufei hitting a drop to Yamaguchi’s right fore-court with the Japanese looking far out of reach on the left. How the 156 cm-tall player lunged, reached the shuttle and flicked it over the net for a winner, only she would now.
Point being, while Sindhu was extremely patient against Okuhara, she would probably need a lot more of it against Yamaguchi on Saturday, whose retrieving skills are one of the best on the circuit. Sindhu would do well to play shorter strokes and draw the Japanese forward as much as possible before going for the kill with an attacking shot to the back-court.
The result of the match, which is bound to go long, will come down to who has enough juice left in the tank, who is more patient and who is more accurate with their stroke-making. If Sindhu manages to tick all these boxes, a second straight world championship final will be within reach.