It was the 28th point of the second game in the Indonesia Open Super 1000 summit clash between PV Sindhu and Akane Yamaguchi. Both the players knew the importance of the point with the Japanese leading 15-12 and hence went hard at every shuttle stretching the rally to 51-shots, the longest of the match.
But just when it looked like Sindhu was growing into the rally, she made an error of judgement when expected to stretch a little to retrieve a fast cross-court toss and lost the point. The point probably summed up the 51-minute encounter in which one felt that the Indian definitely had a chance if she could have pushed herself a little bit more on the big points.
Having dominated Nozomi Okuhara and Chen Yufei in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively, Sindhu would have come into the final with a lot more confidence. But she was caught off-guard by an ultra-aggressive Yamaguchi, who smashed at every opportunity on the first two points that lasted 27 and 31 shots respectively.
There was a clear pattern to the match which Yamaguchi eventually won 21-15, 21-16. The Japanese would come out all guns blazing at the start of the game and immediately after the mid-game interval and try to set the tone. But every time her intensity dipped, Sindhu would slowly but surely claw back and at times even take the lead only to squander it due to unforced errors or a tentative approach at the net.
It is difficult to predict whether the tentative approach was due to the pressure of the final or the need to conserve her energy to match the fast-paced game Yamaguchi was playing, but Sindhu was left ruing the missed opportunities.
The disappointment of the loss notwithstanding, it was a transformed Sindhu that took the court at the Istora Senayan in Jakarta last week and that should augur well as she prepares to continue her medal-winning spree at the BWF World Championship in August this year, which looked difficult given the way the first half of the year panned out for the 24-year-old.
During that period, Sindhu only reached two semi-finals on the BWF circuit and more than the results it was the laboured play and struggles with her court coverage that made one wonder what was wrong with the youngster who ended 2018 with a title triumph at the BWF World Tour Finals.
It was clear that the form had deserted the 24-year-old and she needed to reinvent herself in order to return to winning ways. Even Sindhu was clearly hassled by the way she lost to Okuhara at the Singapore Open and the hammering she received from Sung Ji Hyun in the second game at the Malaysia Open.
So after returning from the Asian swing, Sindhu decided to cut down on her phone time. Normally a happy-go-lucky girl whose idea of relaxation is to stay in touch with friends and family, she first deleted Whatsapp – a common mode of communication for these players – from her phone, cut down on her other engagements and went about improving her fitness and court sharpness under the watchful eyes of Korean coach Kim Ji Hyun.
One of the major areas of concern for Sindhu was that her opponent used to push her to the backcourt and then force her to stretch and bend to retrieve the sharp drops, tiring her tall limbs and torso in the bargain.
Since the epic final at the 2017 World championship against Okuhara, Sindhu had been trying to counter that game plan by working on her hand speed to play quicker from the backcourt, something that worked for her at the end of last year.
But with her fitness level not at the peak and Sindhu having to make certain adjustments to her game at the start of the year, the problem once again started haunting her.
So Sindhu and Kim added a court training session in the afternoon during which they focused on the former’s movement after playing the overhead strokes and ensuring that she made herself ‘big’ on the net to counter the opponent’s ploy of making her bend.
In the Indonesia Open, there was a spring action every time Sindhu played the overhead toss or a drive from the backcourt that allowed her to come back to the centre quicker. This not only allowed her to take the shuttle at the net earlier, helping her dominate those exchanges against Okuhara and Yufei, but also made lifts for her opponent’s difficult as she could intercept them with her tall frame.
Against Okuhara and Yufei, this allowed Sindhu to play a lot more half smashes to win points and one of the striking features of those victories was the backhand cross-court smashes that the Indian managed to execute over half a dozen times.
Even against Yamaguchi, Sindhu managed to return the Japanese body smashes because she was lot more stable on her feet in defence and had she managed to push the match into a third game it would have been interesting to see whether the champion could have sustained the tempo she was playing at.
There is no shame in losing the final to an opponent who was on a high after decimating arguably the best women’s singles player of their time, Tai Tzu Ying, in the semi-final. To her credit, Sindhu’s game did not disintegrate even under relentless pressure from the Japanese and she would take that confidence into the Japan Open and possibly the Thailand Open before coming back home to prepare for the World Championship.
These are still early days in her training with Kim and the 24-year-old has just about started to warm up to the Korean’s coaching methods. But in Indonesia, there were clear imprints of the 44-year-old’s coaching methods – which had helped Korean star Sung Ji Hyun dominate the net and anticipate the opponent’s strokes when they were working together.
There would be more ups and downs depending on the playing conditions and Sindhu’s fitness levels. The 24-year-old’s clear focus this year, apart from the World Championship, is preparing for the Tokyo Olympics and she and Kim have a good 12 months to iron out whatever flaws they identify till August next year.
The progression obviously would be gradual but the first look has definitely been impressive.