Tokyo 2020: PV Sindhu on cusp of sealing historic second Olympic medal
Akane Yamaguchi launched a stirring comeback just when it looked like PV Sindhu would seal the quarter-final with another easy win. Sindhu trailed after leading 14-8 and at 20-18, Yamaguchi had two game points. Sindhu saved both and won four successive points to win 21-13, 22-20 and make the semi-finals, where the crafty Tai Tzu-ying of Chinese Taipei lies in wait on Saturday, without dropping a game in the Olympics.
A heavy metal scream followed the win and as Sindhu let it rip at the Musashino Forest Sport Plaza, her coach, Park Tae-sang of South Korea, dropped on his knees, his arms pumping and fists clenched. Park was a quarter-finalist in the 2004 Olympics.
Through the time Japan’s Yamaguchi showed a remarkable defensive game and engaged Sindhu in long rallies --- one of them lasted 54 shots and left both breathless --- Sindhu didn’t look rattled. “I always knew she would come back. I was prepared for it,” she said. There are few secrets at the elite level in sport.
Speaking about when Yamaguchi took charge of the second game winning six of the seven points contested, Sindhu said: “You know, anybody would get nervous at that point. But we've trained so hard for this and my coach was constantly saying that it's okay, it's not over yet, be focused and you know you can do it.”
“Yamaguchi was engaging her (Sindhu) in long rallies and towards the end, she was reading Sindhu well. But the last four points, Sindhu was just brilliant. Also, I didn’t see her panic; there was a very calm way in which she was dealing with the situation. Lots of improvement in that aspect,” said U Vimal Kumar, the former India chief coach, speaking from Bengaluru.
It’s been quite a transformation for Sindhu who had lost to lesser-known opponents earlier this year. The reigning world champion was struggling to string a sequence of wins in competitions leading to a commentator suggesting on air that Sindhu should play lower-level tournaments to get her confidence back.
In Tokyo, Sindhu has been in control for most of her four matches. Her drop shots have been deceptive and on Friday, Sindhu surprised Yamaguchi a number of times from the back of the court. Sindhu said she was happy that the drops came off well. “You will see some other new skill,” she told reporters.
Introducing new strokes in a competition isn’t easy but Kumar said easy games in the group stage --- of the kind she wouldn’t get in Super Series tournament --- gave Sindhu the freedom to try them out.
“As a player, even if you have learned these things (and) don’t use it’s a waste. Many of them under pressure, they don't implement them but Sindhu is implementing these things. So that is a big plus. I always felt that on big occasions Sindhu has always (had) better results compared to many other Indian players.” Since the final in the Rio Olympics where she won silver, Sindhu has played three successive world championship finals winning it in 2019 for the first time.
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Comfortable wins in the group games also gave Sindhu the chance to get used to the conditions. “Adjust (to the) drift in the hall, the shuttlecocks, the lights, everything matters. These are small things but at that level, they matter,” said Kumar.
In the quarter-final, Sindhu mixed the drop shots with crosscourt drives on both sides of the court. And by taking early control of the rallies --- unlike in the 2019 world series event where she lost to Yamaguchi --- Sindhu dictated the tempo for most of the match.
It was only when Yamaguchi engaged her in long rallies --- it was the Japanese who won that remarkable 54-shot contest --- that Sindhu struggled as unforced errors crept in. Such a rally could have led to a shift in momentum but Sindhu didn’t allow that.
The net game is one area she has really improved, said Kumar. “The counter dribble at the net area, she is really playing well. And from the back of the court, she is playing good—mixing drops, those slow drops are very effective. Normally, she does high clears and then hit hard. This time there was variation. Yesterday (Thursday) also she was using that against that Mia Blichfeldt. So, she’s brought variations in her game. We have to give a lot of credit to her coach Park,” said Kumar who was coach when Saina Nehwal became the first Indian woman to be world No. 1 in 2015.
Sindhu will need all of this and more against Tai who leads the head-to-head 13-5. “I think it’s very important for me to be focused and relaxed now and get ready for the next match,” said Sindhu.
Tai’s ability to change strokes at the last moment has caused Sindhu problems, said Kumar. “Sindhu has to move well, retrieve well and then counter punch because she has that finish.” And do a Yamaguchi on her. “Tai Tzu doesn’t like long rallies unlike the Japanese and Chinese girls,” said Kumar.
The other advantage for Sindhu is that Tai needed three games to beat Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon 14-21, 21-18, 21-18 in their quarter-final on Friday. “That extra energy is needed because n all these girls are very tough,” said Kumar.
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