PV Sindhu may have lost the most number of matches against Tai Tzu Ying but the one player who can get under her skin and force her to change the way she plays has to be Nozomi Okuhara.
The 5’1” tall Japanese shuttler with an affable personality is not in your face like Carolina Marin and rarely threatens to bulldoze the opponents with an all-attack strategy like Tai Tzu. Instead, she loves to mix things up with soft strokes and push her opponents to their physical limit by keeping the shuttle long enough in play. It helps that she has the speed and flexibility to wriggle out of tight situations when she looks completely out of position while playing overhead strokes.
When it comes to her contest with Sindhu, the overarching memory of each of those encounters are long punishing rallies that end up leaving both players with their hands on their knees, digging into their reserves to keep fighting.
The 2017 World Championships final in Glasgow probably was the most brutal of them all and left even the spectators gasping for breathe. While Okuhara revels in such battles, the only game plan that works for Sindhu under such circumstances is to try and overpower her Japanese opponent with those powerful smashes and make the most of her physical strength.
Every time, Sindhu has managed that she has proved to be lot more superior and the 2019 World Championships summit clash in Basel, Switzerland, was a perfect example of how things can be different for the Indian if she can pull off that heist.
But whenever Sindhu isn’t mentally prepared to take that route or self doubts creep in, Okuhara simply manages to rile her with every long rally and take control. And this is exactly what happened at the Arena Birmingham when the two faced each other in the women’s singles quarter-finals of the All England Open Super 1000 event on Thursday.
The opening game was a breeze for Sindhu as she used her powerful smashes to win points and did not allow Okuhara much time to settle down.
The Japanese knew she had to do something different at the start of the second game to stay in the context and she simply increased the pace of the rallies, started playing a lot more downward strokes to not allow Sindhu to attack early and keep extending the rally.
The 38-shot exchange early in the second game probably made Sindhu feel that the last eight encounter was heading towards another slugfest and she needed to conserve her energies to last the distance. This meant that those aggressive drives and booming smashes were replaced with more percentage strokes and a conservative approach and this only served to allow Okuhara to take control even faster.
In Basel last year, when Okuhara had tried to implement a similar game plan, Sindhu had simply gone on the offensive with a clear gameplan to now allow the Japanese any rhythm or the comfort of playing to her strengths.
But in Birmingham, Sindhu preferred to take a more defensive approach. She had been dragged into a similar slugfest by Sung Ji Hyun in the second round on Thursday but had counter punched well against the South Korean to win in two games, something she didn’t do enough against Okuhara.
The rally at 1-1 in the decider was the perfect example of this conservative approach when the Indian had enough chances to kill the point but ended up playing a series of soft strokes that not only allowed Okuhara to stay alive but also gave her the necessary opening to fight back and left the commentators wondering about Sindhu’s intent.
The pattern could be seen more often than not in Sindhu’s game and Okuhara grew in confidence with every passing minute, playing an array of reverse sliced drops, attacking tosses while the Indian’s movement started to look laboured. Sindhu then went overboard with her aggressive intent and ended up making mistakes.
In the end, the 68-minute encounter turned out to be cakewalk for Okuhara, who did not trail even once in the decider to win 12-21, 21-15, 21-13 and broke the sequence of two straight losses against the world champion.
Despite the loss, Sindhu still leads the head-to-head record between the two 9-8. But as the numbers show, there is not much to choose between the two and the matches are mostly decided in favour of the player who is more proactive and adventurous on the given day. And on that front, Thursday belonged to Okuhara.