After a sensational semis victory, Sindhu a win away from second year-ender titleDecember 5, 2021
Matches between PV Sindhu and Akane Yamaguchi are standalone sensations – Saturday’s 21-15, 15-21, 21-19 win for the Indian was a rollicking roller-coaster.
They’ve faced off 21 times starting from juniors through to Olympics, and the ability to throw up a classic, even while all eyes are on the Worlds in Spain in 10 days, makes the duo engaging entertainers.
Saturday happened to be the semifinals of the year-ending World Tour Finals. And such is the opulence in depth in women’s singles that even without half the top players turning up in Bali, there were still four semifinalists who managed to put on a captivating spectacle.
Sindhu has made three World Tour Finals Sunday summits. She won in 2018. And though she’s not won a title in Indonesia (made finals right before the Rio Olympics), not picked a title in 2021 (made finals at Swiss Open) and never beaten An Seyoung (played her twice at Denmark), it is the 70-minute pulse-pounder against Yamaguchi that brought listless contests in Bali to life.
There were two identical Acts of the first two sets – 21-15 scorelines – that the two traded. Sindhu started furiously and guarded her lead, earned with an attacking intent, through the opening exchanges. Just as one thought Yamaguchi’s laboured pushes crashing into the net were taking this contest into soporific straight-game territory, the Japanese seemed to awaken.
In the first set, the 24-year-old, ranked 3 in the world, had relied on hitting steep downwards to Sindhu’s backhand flank. But her net form was abysmal. That changed dramatically in the second, when she turned pin-point accurate. The difference between the duo in stature is 23 cm and Sindhu had used her handy reach on the wings and in taming the backcourt-bound birds effectively.
But Yamaguchi has springy elasticity not just in her back, but also in the elbows. Mixing jumps with whiplash retrieving, she was smothering the shuttle – with wild hits, throwing her limbs out of the sockets. Most would struggle to channel the aggressive shots into accuracy, but not Yamaguchi. She had swapped staves for a sabre, and pulled away comfortably. Quickly, Sindhu was staring at a 1-1 score.
Reaching a crescendo
Momentum matters little when these two stubborn ladies meet, and refuse to retreat. So far from exhaustion setting in, the quality of rallies and their length increased. Sindhu in deciders is a sight to behold because she can blur out everything from the past and make it a desperate now-or-never skirmish. Matters little if it’s Round 1 or a fat paycheque semifinal. The lull before the storm read 11-10. Then all hell broke loose.
Sindhu visibly added a thud to her hammering of the shuttle, her cross-court smashes whizzing like passing shots across Yamaguchi’s eyeline. She also miraculously cut out going across to the backhand retrieves, and employed the round-the-heads, finding immense distance on the deep cross-hits, imposing her physique and power. 17-12 up. Cue: warm-up to a thriller.
Yamaguchi, not to be bullied, would start chipping away, closing the gap, baiting Sindhu at the net with tight dribbles. The Indian was far from poor at the net, but Yamaguchi kept it so taut, refusing to lift, that Sindhu had to bite but not bail out from the confrontation. At other times, she brazenly exploited the Japanese retriever’s modest reach to taunt her, sending her scurrying to corners. Yet, Yamaguchi threatened by simply snapping at Sindhu’s heels. Long rallies invariably went her way as Sindhu felt the nerves and her short and long serves were attacked. 18-17 to the Japanese.
Later speaking to BWF, Sindhu would talk about gulping down nerves. It was more like slurping on noodles, or chomping on kimchee – her leashing of her own nervousness. She would roar out her coiled knots at 19-19. History reads 12-8 in Sindhu’s favour in their head-to-head records. It’s because she can really get into Yamaguchi’s head in these finishing moments, and loom larger than her 179 cm. Sindhu would destroy the next two returns with blistering force to stub Yamaguchi’s resistance.
Korean An Seyoung has generally kept Sindhu quiet with her relentless retrieval. But the Indian is hungry for a title in a season where she hasn’t won one. It’s another puzzle for coach Park Tae-Sang to solve, and he would video-bomb Sindhu’s media interaction to remove her kitbag from her shoulders. The lead-up with a quiet season – where she won the Olympics bronze – is just like 2018 – her first big gold. The biggest challenge awaits at Huelva where she defends her title. But the Worlds can wait. Bali isn’t quite done with its share of fire and brimstone.