How Seyoung out-manoeuvred Sindhu with a made-to-order tactical masterclass

December 6, 2021

BadmintonBWF World Tour Finals


At the outset, An Seyoung robbed PV Sindhu of a bustling confrontation, the way the Indian likes them. Sindhu thrives on speedy exchanges and a thwack on the shuttle that can be redirected using the same pace and power. The Korean teenager deprived her of that hectic hum to scuttle Sindhu’s shy at the World Tour Finals title.

Towards the end of the 21-16, 21-12 loss inflicted on the Indian, An was again playing with pace but not by slowing it down. She outright faked it with such clever double-action pushes that even if the Indian wanted to hassle her by adding a menacing gear to her hand-speed, the shuttle was arriving two seconds too late to shape it into a winner. To sum it up, the Korean dispossessed Sindhu of her big game, to deny her yet another title.

It is no secret that Sindhu can outlast in long rallies. That slow shuttles don’t faze her simply because her strong shoulders can generate their own power when she lets it rip. But An wasn’t drawing her into the long titanic rally battles – the likes that Okuhara and Yamaguchi get busy in, not always troubling the Indian who will eke out her winners. The Korean, instead, opened up a new wound – varying pace within a rally, playing tricks in between two shots to not merely deny Sindhu the shuttle-kills, but making her aware that she was being divested of control.

Here’s how the Indian got outplayed and outmanoeuvred. The Korean from Gwangju looks up to Thai Ratchanok Intanon, who won her first World Championship at 17, but continued to chisel a game that is classically balletic: smooth movements and wondrous wrist-work. An was nothing like that. Koreans run a lot, defend blithely owing to their doubles proficiency and are camels for stamina. The youngster, coming on the heels of the graceful Sung Ji Hyun, rather raised in a way she filled the gaps in Sung’s game, was moulded to embrace attack.

Denying pace

So, An retrieved reliably (she dives and bounces off for next return like Yamaguchi) and she can turn blistering with an attack, though her smash depends on placement more than power. What she has borrowed from Ratchanok’s game is those subtle pace variations to unsettle opponents. It started pretty straightforward: don’t give Sindhu any pace. The early 4-0 lead in the first set, and the subsequent closing out, came from not allowing Sindhu to dominate.

One suspects Sindhu had gotten it into her head that an early lead was her best safety-net to negotiate any later drama against a player she’s never beaten. When that didn’t work out, the Indian drove herself into one right funk.

Both attacked the other’s backhands, Sindhu striking the shuttle at a very high point to get her first few points. An was exploiting the old Sindhu weakness – low defence on her backhand forecourt corner, the one that the Japanese and Tai Tzu revel in peppering the Indian with. Making her bend, tiring her out, committing her to the net, so she can’t spread her wings from the backcourt. Sindhu wasn’t missing those shuttle picks. But she was definitely stretched when yo-yoed to the diagonal back corner on her forehand.

From 4-5, she fell back to 12-20, before launching her resistance to go upto 16-21, saving four set points.

Playing along

What Sindhu wasn’t perhaps prepared for was that when she returned for the second, all gung-ho and intent to force the pace, An would play along. And still throttle the pace mid-rally. Just to drill the point home, An was also smashing on Sindhu’s body. On a confident day, Sindhu sends them across—like Srikanth even— for winners. Not on Sunday, when An merely triggered her anxieties about awkward body defence.

But it was after 11-6 that the Korean really started driving the knife in. Armed with the lead, she brought out the double-action returns.

What essentially happens is the Korean’s forearm shapes to play a return, she then drops the wrist a tad and snaps the shuttle an agonising instant later to delay and digress where the bird is headed. It can thoroughly confound an opponent. Sindhu, 0-2 down in career head-to-heads, a set behind and failing to wrest control of the pace, was even more boggled. Doubts were sown not only about where the shuttle would head, but when and at what speed it would scurry there.

This wasn’t the traditional stealing of pace, and spoiling the rhythm. It was like going looking for some BTS emotional glug, but out comes Woosung’s raspy trill from The Rose. Not jarring, just jostled on court.