The enduring image of the 2017 World Championship final between PV Sindhu and Nozomi Okuhara is that of both players going down on their knees after a 73-shot marathon rally which the Indian won to clinch the second game and force a decider.
The rally was clearly controlled by the Japanese with her accurate shot making and quick movement while her opponent did enough to keep the shuttle in play till a cross-court defensive push made possible by her long reach fell well short of the tired Okuhara.
Cut that to the second game of the 2019 edition of their summit clash. Okuhara was completely outplayed in the opening game and was trailing 1-2 in the second when she probably opted for the last throw of the dice by opting to increase the pace of the rally in an attempt to suck Sindhu into long drawn rallies.
But this time around, the Indian took control of the proceedings by mixing up her soft strokes with effective clears and killed the rally in just 28 strokes with a powerful cross-court smash that left the Japanese on her knees while she jogged around the court full of confidence.
She soon completed a 21-7, 21-7 victory in one of the most lopsided women’s singles final to become the first Indian shuttler to be crowned world champion.
It’s true that Sindhu had spent less time on the court coming into the final this time around as compared to the 2017 edition and hence was much fresher. It’s true that the opening game had been a cakewalk and the Indian was beaming with confidence knowing that the world championship crown was hers for the taking.
But it is also equally true that Sindhu had set this up with domineering performances throughout the week which would have instilled fear in any opponent simply for the way she grabbed every match by the scruff of its neck and swatted away opponents with disdain once she got into her groove.
Apart from that first game against world No 2 Tai Tzu Ying, when the wizard from Chinese Taipei was playing some spellbinding badminton, Sindhu was an inspired soul on the courts of St Jakobshalle arena, imposing herself on every rally, every point and every match with aggressive intent and much more creativity than she has been known for in the past.
Be it the defensive backhand lifts to counter Tai Tzu’s smashes in the second game, the variations in her half smashes and the net dribbles or the bounce in her feet that not only allowed her to attack the shuttle on the net after a smash but also react a lot quicker to the body smashes most of her opponents had used so effectively against her and nullified that approach, this was a completely different Sindhu in action and she admitted as much in the post-match conference.
“Now I have got a new coach, Kim (Ji Hyun), with whom I have been training under her for a few months. Definitely, a lot has changed, a lot of improvements on my side, skill-wise and I am very, very thankful to her. Every coach has a different mindset and that really helped me,” she said.
Kim, who has now changed her name to Ji Hyun Marr but is still better known by her maiden name, has been working with Sindhu since March this year and had spoken to the BWF website earlier on the areas she had been working on with the 24-year-old.
“The way she plays, I feel it’s not smart enough. I mean, at the top level, you have to be smart. It has to be a combination, like your technique, and hitting and mentality. There are so many skills she has to work on, especially net skills and deception. Step by step, we’re working on skills, and changing tactics, as you can’t use the same tactics over and over again,” she had said.
Sindhu showed glimpses of those improvements during her run to the Indonesia Open Super 1000 final last month but was out-thought by Akane Yamaguchi in the final. But at the World Championship, everything came together as the Rio Olympics and 2018 Asian Games bronze medallist was a lot more positive in her approach and a lot stronger physically.
And not just strokes, her movement on the court is also very assured which meant the high number of judgement errors on the backline came down to negligible value.
This also meant that tentativeness in her game which was visible at the India Open this year, where she reached the semi-finals, has been replaced with a steely resolve to dominate the opponent and Kim egging her on after every point has only added to her motivation levels.
“There was no particular strategy against her (Okuhara) but it was just like every point really really mattered to me. Sometimes giving away easy points was making me nervous even though scores were really low. It was just like how much ever lead I had, I had to finish it off,” she explained when asked about what was going on in her mind during the final.
Chief National coach Pulella Gopichand also pointed out the role Kim has played in this transformation saying the former Asian Games gold medallist has been working on Sindhu’s strokes and movement in addition to the regular group session with the entire coaching staff.
“Kim’s addition really helps because she spends time in the morning and evening with her and then Sindhu also joins the group sessions. So I think the amount of time she spends on court with a dedicated coach is something which really helps. It’s not only Kim but the entire support staff has helped her out and Kim’s particular attention on strokes definitely helped,” he told Scroll.in from Basel.
The other major improvement in Sindhu has been the increased body mass that is not only making her look a lot bigger on court but has also allowed her to generate a lot of power in her strokes. Sindhu has a natural ability to recover quickly between points which allows her to play long rallies and matches, she needed to build muscles mass to execute a lot of strokes more effectively.
That element was all the more visible when even the fleet-footed Tai Tzu and Okuhara had to scramble to reach the Indians cross-court forehand drives. And even when her opponents managed to return her smashes, all she had to do was rush to the net and tap the shuttle for a winner.
And a lot of credit goes to her strength trainer Srikanth Verma Madapalli, who she thanked in the post-match conference. Sindhu began training with him two years ago, travelling about 60 km every day to the Suchitra Academy where he is employed for many months. But now the trainer travels to a gymnasium closer to the Gopichand Academy and that has allowed the 24-year-old to get more rest.
“Some of the muscles in her body were affecting her front court movement. We have worked on them and you can see the improvement in that area. In each person, the muscles are structured in a different manner. We have to work accordingly,” Srikanth was quoted as saying by The Times of India.
With the world title in her bag after two reversals in the final, Sindhu can now breathe easy in terms of immediate performances and shift her focus to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She will definitely have to maintain her form during the qualification period but with a strong team to plan things now, the world champion should have enough breathing space.
In the last six years, the 24-year-old has graduated from being the Asian Junior champion to World Champion via two world championship bronze and silver medals, a runners-up finish at the Rio Olympics, Commonwealth Games, and the Asian Games.
A title triumph in Tokyo would be an ideal milestone in a year’s time from now. The signs are all looking good. And neither Sindhu nor her team is going to leave any stone unturned to achieve that goal.