Stung by the venom of “pressure”, Olympic silver medallist Pusarla Venkata Sindhu conceded yet another hard-fought encounter at the final hurdle. This time around, she stumbled on home soil while trying to defend her fortress at the India Open.
On the threshold of glory, a match point at 20-19 for India’s darling and defending champion PV Sindhu and the shuttle decides to turn fate. A net dribble that falters and the bird refuses to cross the side.
An eerie calm grapples the Siri Fort Indoor Stadium as the American opponent Zhang Beiwen pounces on the opportunity of amassing three consecutive points and forces the 22-year-old Hyderabadi into submission with a 21-18, 11-,21 22-20 in the women’s singles finals at the USD 350,000 Yonex Sunrise India Open Championships.
The Chinese- born American proved ferocious in front of the World no 4, scripting her first major International title and silencing the crowd who were boisterously cheering for their home favourite at the thrilling summit clash of the India Open Super 500.
Zhang Beiwen, who had eliminated Indian badminton star Saina Nehwal in the quarter-final, had already made a statement that she was here to make it large. On Saturday, the fifth seed ousted the in-form Cheung Ngan Yi of Hong Kong in the semi-final.
Cheung was flaunting a resume with a huge win over Olympic gold medallist Carolina Marin but drowned at 19-21 in her deciding game against Beiwen after a mighty fight, saving three match points.
With this hair-line margin loss at a final yet again for Sindhu, the skeletons of memories of the previous defeats that lay in the closets somehow have found a way to the fore again. For those multitudes of fans and arm-chair analysts, it might be about corrections as to what should have been the strategy at that moment but only the athlete who endures it knows what goes into that juncture.
Pressure is often a venom that stings into the ability to perform. If not shaken off in the initial stages of a contest, it can subdue the very best, even the World Championships silver medallist is not spared.
Not possible to fathom what was going on the top seed’s mind but a similar kind of mistake on that net dribble during the fag-end like the one she did against Nozomi Okuhara in the World Championship Final in Glasgow and the BWF Superseries Finals summit clash in Dubai against Akane Yamaguchi will keep haunting Sindhu for a while.
Rewind back to November 2017, National Finals in Nagpur and Sindhu once again faced defeat to compatriot Saina Nehwal 17-21 27-25 proving that she has won only two of the eight Finals since her Silver at the Rio Olympics.
On Sunday evening, almost on the brink of tears, Sindhu walked guilty towards Gopichand and Heriawan after hitting a wide and before shaking hands with the victorious Zhang. Pondering over the loss, it could also be the fatigue that must have grappled the ace shuttler after that semi-final clash against third seed Ratchanok Intanon on Saturday where Sindhu was at her aggressive best. But on the final’s evening, she was far from what we saw the previous day.
These athletes get little time to recover and many a times the reason for such close losses. Agree, the semi-final was a straight sets win 21-13 21-15 over the Former World no. 1 Thai star but a late night on the court thereafter still can have gruelling effects on the body especially when there is an impending final next day on hand and a high pressure one at that.
Somehow from the start of the 69 minutes fight, Sindhu looked pale. Perhaps the cumbrous load of expectations from the home crowd and the pressure of defending her India Open title worked as a pile too heavy for the lanky shuttler to bear. She also lacked the physical fitness which would help her bring out the prowess needed to conquer the World no 11.
What else could otherwise explain the fact that the usually cordial Sindhu was seen arguing with the chair umpire on the second point of the match over a flashlight from the crowd. The number of times, she received a warning for taking too much time was also a cause of concern on that fateful Finals evening.
World no. 11, Zhang admitted that Sindhu was under pressure while she had nothing to lose and that worked in her favour. “I think she had more pressure and I had nothing to lose. The crowd got behind her to beat me and she took more pressure than me. She couldn’t control the pressure,” said the 27-year-old after winning her first major title.
Meanwhile, Zhang used her tactics to the best. She barely allowed the top seed to use her powerful smashes that is so signature of Sindhu. Not allowing the shuttle to land on the mid-court region, the American made sure she could retrieve comfortably when the Indian would smash from the baseline.
Displaying some supreme skills at the net, the 27-year-old Zhang ensured she kept all the fuel in the tank intact and use it only at the crucial stages. This was evident when she bagged the first game by keeping check on the unforced errors when Sindhu was reducing the deficit to 18-19.
Zhang’s commendable court coverage and precision shots were near to flawless. Despite being an underdog, the way she waded through the waters can make for an epic saga to be written in letters of gold. Devoid of a coach to watch over her on the court, the world no 11 proved she barely needed any.
Even while Sindhu was marching leaps and bounds in the second game with huge leads like 11-4, the American was a portrait of a calm demeanour. While the Indian was all bent on taking the second in which she gave every ounce of energy that she had within, it almost seemed like Sindhu was finding her feet.
With those smashes and rallies, Sindhu succeeded in bringing the crowd on their feet as she clinched the second game. By now the defending champion had lit a flame of hope in the hearts of her fans.
In the deciding game, Sindhu was almost out of steam. Her sweaty face, uneasiness and nervy self began showing. Often the opponent is more like a hunter who smells all these traits and goes for the kill. Exactly what happened in the third game when Zhang pounced on the frail prey to feast on victory.
Despite treated to doses of advice from National coach Gopichand in between, Sindhu barely could bring out her A game when it was most needed.
A stark difference in the body language of both Zhang and Sindhu could make for a good case-study. Zhang was devoid of expressions all through while the latter was seen huffing and puffing, falling down and dropping her head in exasperation in turn breaking hearts of millions of her fans.
Nonetheless, we have to give due credit to Sindhu, who staged a super fightback from 17-19 to a match-point. The only falter was the net dribble that proved expensive for our Indian shuttler and Zhang made the most of it as she sealed the nail-biting encounter to collect the $26,250 cheque as a Winner’s Prize.
Sindhu's final jinx can be broken
Reaching the finals on the big stages itself is a testimony of the greatness of Sindhu. The breakthrough is just round the corner. The way an athlete holds his/her nerves in the dying moments of a battle is what define a champion.
We will hope that Sindhu uses the pressure as an amenity to shine instead of letting it dupe her.
Stumbling at the final hurdle is what hurts but if the world number 4 sets her mind on it by keeping her emotions in check on court and uses her energy with optimum efficiency there is no reason why Sindhu will not be able to lift the elusive titles that long seem to be playing hide-n-seek with her.
Instead of playing it safe, the 22-year-old needs to give her aggressive best to snatch victories on the elite stages.
The need of the hour is to exorcise the ghosts of the recent close defeats. The first loss 17 months back to Spain’s Carolina Marin at the Rio Olympics, then succumbing at the World Championships and again at the Finals in Dubai are all the ones which need to be carefully looked upon so as to help overcoming what little comes in the way of glory for our star Sindhu.
It has become a habit of us fans to expect our star Hyderabadi shuttler to give her best each time she steps on court and why not, it is what the nation feeds on, boasts of and craves to see the country go high up on the map of recognition as far as sports is concerned.
Basking in an adrenaline gush, each time Sindhu hits a smash is what makes the sport so gripping for fans who worship their athletes. A sense of pride that gives goosebumps is what ardent badminton fans thrive on.
It is noteworthy that this year’s India Open was less competitive compared to the past few years. Blame it on the hectic scheduling in January. Although it did live upto its status of a Super Series, the 2018 edition attracted only a few top 10 players in each of the five categories. Two out of five defending champions were back to defend their title again, while the others had withdrawn or chosen not to participate.
All said and done, we will yearn to catch our star coming back on court putting behind all the woes and playing with reckless abandon once again at the Badminton Asia team Championship in Malaysia where of course Saina Nehwal’s absence will be conspicuous.Published 06 Feb 2018, 22:52 IST