PV Sindhu fell to her knees screaming in joy. She had shown remarkable patience the entire 54 minutes of the match to edge out Wang Yihan, the Chinese silver medallist in London 2012, 22-20, 21-19 in the quarterfinals at Rio.
“One of the best moments of my career,” she declared in triumph.
Those were not empty words. Getting past the world No 2, that too in straight games, was very impressive. But Sindhu awaits a different test later on Thursday. Standing between her and the assurance of a badminton medal for the second Games in a row is fellow 21-year-old Nozomi Okuhara of Japan.
Playing in her maiden Olympics, Sindhu has stuck to the strategy devised with coach Pullela Gopichand. That is to attack when there’s an advantage, defend when the opponent is attacking and retrieve till you tire out the opponent, and force her to make unforced errors.
With injured London bronze medallist Saina Nehwal eliminated in the group stages and Kidambi Srikanth giving a tough fight to Chinese double Olympic champion Lin Dan before narrowly going down in three sets in the men’s singles quarterfinals on Wednesday, Indian badminton’s medal hopes lie on Sindhu’s shoulders.
The entire nation, relieved to finally end the wait for a medal in Rio, is anxious for more. But how does Gopichand’s ward stay focused in such pressure situations? Sindhu responded casually after Tuesday’s match: “Just thinking about the game. I’m focused on the match.”
They may be of the same age but no one can take Okuhara lightly. Notching up five victories last season, the cherry being the Super Series Masters final, the young player from Nagano capped the sensational season by pocketing the All England title. Even Saina calls her one of her toughest opponents. Ranked No 6 in the world compared to Sindhu’s 11th, their head-to-head stands 3-1 in Okuhara’s favour. Their most recent clash ended with the Japanese notching up a three-game win in the Badminton Asia Team Championships in February.
The only time Sindhu managed a win was at the junior level, back in 2012 in the Asia Youth U-19 meet.
Okuhara’s rapid rise can be attributed to her solid retrieving capabilities. She puts her opponent on the back foot getting every shot back, forcing the other to commit errors. Her drives are powerful and unpredictable. But more often than not, Okuhara sticks to the basics of playing in a certain way. That is what Sindhu needs to capitalise on in the semifinals.
Sindhu needs to be patient and stick to her strategy. She did it beautifully against Wang Yihan, picking up every shot the Chinese threw at her and going for the kill at every opportunity. What can be a matter of concern though is her inconsistency. Her year began with the Malaysian Masters triumph, but since then, it’s been an up and down graph.
Out of 36 matches she’s played this season, she’s lost 13. The inconsistency is not new, be it the Commonwealth Games semifinals where she lost to Michelle Lee of Canada or her most recent clash against Okuhara in Hyderabad.
If Sindhu manages a victory, she can fight for the gold. A loss would put her in the bronze medal play-off. Indian fans will hope Sindhu carries forward her form and excellent fitness into the last-four stage.
And that she sticks to her strategy, which has been really working for the tall shuttler.