Asian avengers: Sai Praneeth, PV Sindhu win big at World Championships
Pullela Gopichand is not known to show his emotions. The solemn chief national coach usually keeps his composure and merely pumps his fists when his ward wins a tournament.
On Friday, though, as two of his protégés—PV Sindhu and B Sai Praneeth—created history at the World Championships, defeating reigning Asian Games champions to enter their respective semi-finals and assuring themselves of medals in Basel, there was an outpour of emotions. With Tai Tzu Ying’s final shot going wide, Sindhu fell to the floor in sheer delight. Gopi raised his hands, let out a loud “Yay” with one of the biggest grins ever seen on his sombre face.
Less than an hour later, the former All England champion was flashing a huge smile as he hugged a tearful Sai after he beat Indonesian Jonatan Christie in the quarter-final to become the first Indian in 36 years to assure himself of a men’s singles medal at the Worlds since Prakash Padukone’s bronze in Copenhagen 1983. This is also only the second time Indian shuttlers will return from the Worlds with two medals after Sindhu and Saina Nehwal won silver and bronze, respectively, in Glasgow 2017. The Indians also ensured that they continue the trend of winning medals at every Worlds since 2011.
Odds were stacked in favour of fourth seed Christie. As the reigning Asian Games champion, he had the credentials and Sai had a point to prove. Some had even questioned Sai’s nomination for the Arjuna award.
Though Sai had beaten Christie in 2017, the Indonesian had convincingly overcome the Indian in their last two contests. But the 16th seeded Indian brought out his ‘A’ game to beat the temperamental world No 4 24-22, 21-14 in 51 minutes.
With both exchanging serves at almost every point, it eventually boiled down to who held his nerve better where Sai prevailed, saving a game point and converting his third to take the lead in the match. In the second game, Christie looked out of sorts. The 27-year-old Indian took advantage and kept drilling in his smashes to which the Indonesian had no reply. Sai dominated the second game and won the encounter on his first match point, falling to the floor, letting his emotions get the better of him. Sai thus ensured that he is yet to lose a game at the St. Jakobshalle arena.
“I went in thinking it is just another quarter-final and tried to keep the pressure on Jonatan. I was attacking a lot towards the end. Gopibhaiyya told me to not attack and let him and he’ll commit mistakes and that’s exactly what happened. I started tossing and lifting the shuttle to allow him to go for it and he made errors,” Sai said from Basel. “Winning the first game was crucial. If he’d won the first game the result could have been different.”
Sai now faces an extremely tough challenge in the semis, where he’ll take on defending champion and world No 1 Kento Momota. Though Sai has a 2-3 record against the Japanese, his wins had come in 2013. “I know Momota’s game. He is a very tough opponent who changes the pace of the game at his will.”
Sindhu too displayed similar emotions following a dramatic quarter-final against Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu—the most consistent women’s singles player in the last three years and who hasn’t dropped out of the top-2 since December 2016.
The world No 2 had a commanding 10-4 record against Sindhu but that didn’t matter as the fifth seeded Indian came out on top 12-21, 23-21, 21-19 in a marathon match that lasted an hour and 11 minutes. Despite winning 61 points to Sindhu’s 56, the second seeded Tai Tzu lost.
With the win, the Rio Olympics silver medallist assured herself of a fifth medal in six outings at the Worlds to become the joint most successful women’s singles player at the global event, equalling Chinese Zhang Ning. Sindhu is now only behind Lin Dan (7) in the list of most medals at the Worlds and tied with Zhang and Peter Gade. The contest itself was exceptionally challenging as there was hardly anything to choose between the two. Sindhu’s top game was nowhere to be seen in the first game as Tai Tzu used the ‘drop and smash’ tactic regularly to outwit the Indian.
With her powerful backhand, the nimble-footed Tai Tzu was able to dominate and easily claimed the first game. It was only in the second game that Sindhu started showing flashes of brilliance, mixing her serve, back and forehand, to counter her deceptive opponent.
With coach Kim Ji Hyun animatedly shouting instructions from courtside, Sindhu fought back. Initially she played safe, keeping the bird in play, forcing Tai Tzu to commit errors. But Sindhu really brought out her aggressive self towards the end of the second game when at 18-all the world No 2 became defensive to try and win the second game and match. Sindhu seized the initiative, shifted gears and put pressure on her opponent, which worked perfectly. Tai Tzu, playing safe, gave the game away, pushing the match into the decider.
The third game was equally intense with Tai Tzu making sure she kept the lead until Sindhu equalised at 14-all. Sindhu targeted Tai Tzu’s body with her smashes and from 15-17 down, she won the next four points to go ahead 19-17. Sindhu kept her nerve to win two of the next four points and as Tai Tzu’s shot went wide, a thrilled Sindhu fell to the floor with Kim and Gopi leaping in joy.
“Irrespective of who was leading I never thought it was over. It was close and anybody’s game. She was leading in the third game but I still had hope that anything can happen which kept me going. I had to be very patient and just had to keep the shuttle in play. Overall it was a really good match. Winning these matches always help your confidence going for the next one,” Sindhu said.
The 24-year-old will next face Chinese fourth seed Chen Yufei against whom she has a 5-3 record. “I want to come back stronger tomorrow. Chen Yufei is playing really well of late. I must be focussed for tomorrow.”