It was 52 minutes shorter than their classic a year ago, but PV Sindhu and Nozomi Okuhara still put up quite a spectacle. Long rallies, endless retrieving and bottomless reserves of energy makes encounters between the two fascinating, distinct and props itself as a delicious advertisement for the sport. Friday’s World Championship quarterfinals had almost all of it.
By the end of 58 minutes, Sindhu, the lone surviving Indian in the draw, assured herself of a fourth medal (she already has two bronze and a silver) at the tournament with a 21-17, 21-19 win as defending champion Okuhara graciously congratulated her at the net with more than a perfunctory hug.
“I’m really happy I could win this match,” Sindhu reflected later, “I was prepared for the long rallies and Okuhara is the kind of player who doesn’t give away any easy points, so even when I was trailing halfway through the second game I kept telling myself just to be patient and stay on court. I knew the match was not over.”
Last year, Okuhara had become the first Japanese player to take home a Worlds gold medal. Of course, she’s no stranger to history. In 2016, Okuhara ended her country’s 39-year wait with an All-England title win. A right knee injury she sustained at the Japan Open last September sidelined her for three months, tucking her under the radar but she managed to beat Sindhu to pick up her first title since, at the Thailand Open in July this year.
Okuhara’s dogged running, troubled perhaps by her knee, wasn’t fully up to the task on Friday, but she used her delightful, trademark reverse slice drop shot, where the racket head is adjusted at an angle and the shuttle follows the opposite direction, usually a cross court trajectory, on at least a handful of occasions to frustrate Sindhu.
Sindhu too had her plans in place. She mixed her drop shots well with good, soft, downward shots and used flat pushes judiciously which upset Okuhara’s rhythm. Coach Vimal Kumar was quick to call attention to the superiority of the World No. 3-ranked Indian’s strategy. “Sindhu played a tactically better game,” he said. “Mainly, if you give Okuhara pace she loves it like any other retriever. But Sindhu did not do so today and that was the difference.”
Trailing 17-20 in the first, Okuhara managed to save a game point with a body smash but had to lug herself courtside at the break in the knowledge that this may be anything but what she’d wished for. She opened up a hasty five-point lead early in the second but Sindhu hung in and her stamina kept her in the game. Particularly in the rallies – the longest one lasting 45 shots – which Sindhu prevailed to close the gap to 8-10 in the second.
“Normally after long rallies, Sindhu tires and loses the next few points, but this time it wasn’t so,” coach and former national champion Arvind Bhat says. “Even after the rallies she looked fit and willing to push the pace which may have made Okuhara nervous because she typically plays these long exchanges and capitalises on them. I think that may have been crucial for Sindhu today.”
No matter how far she goes from here, Sindhu will board the flight back home from Nanjing with at least a bronze. But last year’s silver medallist, who faces another defensive Japanese opponent in Akane Yamaguchi in the semifinals, will want to go all the way and shed the curse of the final this time.