On Independence Day it was left up to the sport that was originally called Poona, after the place where the modern game was first formalised, to give India some marginal succour from the Rio wipeout. Pusarla Venkata Sindhu is a lanky five foot ten inches and all of 21. The frail looking woman who shrieks in joy whenever she clichés a close point, is now the pivot point for India’s fantasies of an Olympic medal from Rio.
On Monday, Sindhu made it to the quarters after a solid 40 minutes of play in which she outclassed Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying 21-13, 21-15. The performance showed off her repertoire of on court skill which will now be sorely tested as she next runs into London silver winner, Wang Yihan. Now, that’s a match that doesn’t inspire too much confidence for success but then if one went by cold statistics then neither did the one against Ying. After all she trailed 2-4 even against the Taipei player.
But out on court on Monday, it was apparent that the Indian was the dominant player on the day. Also, old match statistics are just cold numbers, they wilt when thrown in the reality of the cauldron that’s the Olympic arena. Sindhu’s performance was inspiring but the woman she faces next has been the most inspired player in closing out tournaments.
The Chinese has 30 singles titles, which make her the most successful winner on the women’s tour. Such opponents seldom wilt, no matter how strong the ardour of the opponent across the net. Sindhu has her work cut out in the quarters.
Badminton was cause for further cheer as earlier in the day Kidambi Srikanth showed that one quality which is not really the wont of Indian sportsmen competing at the world’s greatest sporting spectacle. He was blatantly aggressive and refused to be cowed down by Denmark’s Jan O Jorgensen. The 23-year-old prevailed 21-19, 21-19 in a close match which was a classic contest between an all-out offensive player and a man known for his defensive ability.
Srikanth’s talent has been nurturing in the shadow of the arc lights glare on Saina Nehwal and Sindhu. Another protégé of that coach extraordinaire, P Gopichand, he next runs into two-time gold winner Lin Dan in the quarters. Now, while there is cause for optimism given that Srikanth beat Lin two years ago at the China Open, the Chinese smash machine will be a different player altogether at the Olympics.
Lin has not been the most consistent of players in the recent past but the likes of this multiple world champion are on a different level altogether when it comes to marquee events like the Olympics. However, the unconventional stroke play of Srikanth did get to him two years ago and it will be a battle of blistering aggression.
The key to the quarters for both Indians will be just how they handle their nerves. For the first-time Olympians there will also be the added baggage of the hope of a billion as they are the last few medal hopes from their nation’s largest Olympic contingent ever.