When PV Sindhu lost her first World Championship final two years ago after an epic battle against Nozomi Okuhara, chief national coach Pullela Gopichand had put forward a brave face saying he would only regret this loss if his ward did not get another shot at the title.
A year later, Sindhu got another chance and it went abegging as Carolina Marin outplayed her in the final in Nanjing.
The most pessimistic of Sindhu supporters would also not have ruled out another opportunity in the next 12 months but not many would have imagined that she would get a chance at redemption in a repeat of the 2017 marathon final.
But here we are, smacking our lips at a possible repeat of that epic encounter in Glasgow, Scotland, which the badminton world still cannot stop talking about and hoping that the result this time would be in favour of the 24-year-old Indian at Basel, Switzerland, on Sunday.
There is quite a bit of similarity in the way the two shuttlers have made it to the final. While just like 2017, Sindhu hammered Chen Yufei in straight games to make it to the summit clash, Okuhara had to dig deep into her reserves to beat Ratchanok Intanon – similar to her win over Saina Nehwal two years ago – in three games that lasted about an hour and 23 minutes.
Traditional wisdom suggests that the contrasting wins would mean that Sindhu would be fresher in case the final goes on to become a long-drawn affair. But just like all Japanese shuttlers, Okuhara has the ability to recover quickly from a gruelling match and nullify that advantage.
So what exactly does Sindhu need to do to become the first Indian world champion and end her run of two consecutive silver medals?
All about intent
To be fair, there is not much tactical or technical planning that would go into preparing for the final as both the players know each other’s game pretty well – they have already faced each other 15 times with Sindhu leading the head-to-head record 8-7. Both rely on their ability to play those lung-busting rallies and while Sindhu has the strength and reach, Okuhara counters it with her speed and precision.
In that sense, Sindhu was right when she told the BWF website that how she manages to play on Sunday will be the only thing that will matter. “I will give my 100 percent... There’s not much of strategy, because we know each other’s game, we play each other all the time. It’s just that on the court, every point matters,” she was quoted as saying.
What will also matter is how soon Sindhu can settle her nerves as despite playing in her third consecutive final there could be some early jitters thanks to the pressure of expectations and the fear of failing one more time.
In the four matches so far, Sindhu was tentative to get off the blocks only against Tai Tzu Ying in the quarter-finals and that almost cost her a medal. But she recovered through a remarkable fightback in the second game and a near-perfect execution in the decider.
Sindhu, then, came out all guns blazing in the semi-final against Chen Yufei and given the similarities in style of play and approach, the Indian should adopt a similar game plan against Okuhara on Sunday.
The Japanese clearly struggled to counter Intanon’s speed in the opening game of their semi-final encounter but did enough to stay in the hunt by pushing herself in the early part of the second game before making her move once the Thai former world champion began to tire.
Grabbing early initiative
Sindhu is physically stronger and fresher than Intanon and should not run out of steam as easily. But the 24-year-old would definitely need to guard against passivity, something she has been guilty of in big matches in the past. In those matches, the Rio Olympics silver medallist has displayed the tendency of merely engaging in long rallies by keeping the shuttle in play and hoping that the opponent would tire out and end up making errors.
Okuhara clearly has the wherewithal to make Sindhu pay for such misdemeanours and then put enough pressure on the Indian that could make her wilt physically and mentally – something she successfully did two years ago.
Sindhu can, however, take heart from the fact that she has beaten Okuhara three times in their last four meetings and all those victories came in straight games with the Indian dominating the proceedings with her pro-active approach and aggressive intent.
But the real challenge would be to execute that plan on the biggest possible stage. “It’s going to be a bit different (from last time),” Sindhu insisted after the semi-final.
She added: “I’m happy but not satisfied yet because there’s one more match to go. Definitely, I would want to get the gold for sure. But it’s not going to be easy. At the same time, I will have to focus and be patient. I was well prepared today. Overall the game went really well, and I hope it goes the same way tomorrow as well… Anything can happen, right?”
If Sindhu can maintain the same tempo that she played with against Yufei in the semi-final and grab the final with the scruff of its neck early, even the fleet-footed Okuhara would find it difficult to keep pace with the tall Indian as she can pack a lot more punch in her strokes than Intanon and hence would be much more dangerous.
There is a much more assured feel to the way Sindhu has been playing this week or rather since the Indonesia Open Super 1000, where she reached the final in similar fashion before wilting against Okuhara’s compatriot Akane Yamaguchi.
All she needs to do is to back herself one more time, throw caution to the wind, play like a champion and victory will be hers for the taking.