All England Open 2018: PV Sindhu buries mental demons in gritty win over Nozomi Okuhara, enters maiden semi-final

Shirish Nadkarni

A potential world champion was at work in the Birmingham Arena on Friday. PV Sindhu effectively laid to rest the demons that must have been over-running her mind in the wake of her desperately narrow loss to Japan's Nozomi Okuhara in the 2017 World Championship final in Glasgow, by administering the knockout punch to the diminutive Japanese ace in the quarter-final of the $1 million All England Badminton Championships.

The gut-wrenching 110-minute 19-21, 22-20, 20-22 loss to Okuhara in Glasgow was offset by a gritty, determined 74-minute 20-22, 21-18, 21-18 triumph in Birmingham, catapulting Sindhu into her first All England semi-final, a level that her compatriot Saina Nehwal has attained on two occasions in the past. No doubt the willowy Indian would have been left wishing that the two matches could have been somehow reversed, thus obliterating the gap between the gold and silver medals at the Worlds.

India's PV Sindhu in action during the women's singles quarter-final. Reuters

India's PV Sindhu in action during the women's singles quarter-final. Reuters

The Sindhu who took the court on Friday was as different from the uncertain, prodigal player we had seen in her first two matches in this premier competition, as chalk is from cheese. While the No 4 seed had virtually sleepwalked through her jousts with the Thai twosome of Pornpawee Chochuwong and Nitchaon Jindapol in her earlier rounds, she was sharp and focused against the seventh-seeded Okuhara, realising that the slightest slip in concentration against the pint-sized Japanese dynamo would be fatal.

There was literally nothing to separate the two prime athletes, barring playing styles. Sindhu was all aggression, looking to dominate the rallies and throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Okuhara, who absorbed all the punishment with obdurate defence, and even returned it with dividends attached. Neither player was able to take a breakaway lead, and the progressive points chart of the first game showed the scores of the two almost inextricably intertwined €" like lovers, to employ a risqué analogy.

One pattern became evident as the match progressed. Sindhu tried everything in the book to keep the rallies short, while Okuhara concentrated on probing the corners and keeping the shuttle in play, hoping that her awesome staying power would eventually weigh in the balance. The longer a rally lasted, the greater were the chances of the Japanese player winning it, as the Indian looked winded and took her time getting ready to launch or face the next rally.

There were just three occasions in that utterly absorbing, tight first game when one of the two antagonists took a two-point lead €" and it was Sindhu every time, at 6-4, 8-6 and 15-13. The final time that a player took a two-point lead was when Okuhara overturned a 19-20 situation against her to bag the next three points for the game. Okuhara won the final two points after a brace of unsuccessful line challenges from Sindhu as her strokes landed millimeters out along the sidelines.

The second stanza proceeded along similar lines, with the tiny Japanese star, who had won the All England crown in 2016, trying to prolong the rallies with a diagonally directed attack to force her rival to take that one additional step to cover the court. There was slightly greater disparity in the leads that Sindhu took in this game €" holding the advantage at 14-11 and 16-13, before losing her focus temporarily for the one and only time in the match.

To Okuhara's credit, it must be said that she took her opponent by surprise by suddenly upping her speed and switching to an all-out attack. In a trice, she had neutralised the 13-16 deficit, and powered ahead to 18-16. Sindhu's even more creditable response, particularly as she was in danger of losing the tie in straight games, was to match the speed of her rival and blunt the attack against her with reflex clears that forced Okuhara to scamper back and employ a defensive toss to stay in the rally.

It was the Indian's turn to reel off five points in a row as her opponent, unused to maintaining a sustained attack, went for too much and smashed wide into the sidelines twice, to concede the second game, and allow Sindhu to get back on level terms.

The world champion started brightly in the decider with 4-1 and 5-2 leads, but the Indian dug deep and overturned the advantage, to go ahead to 8-6. A persistent Okuhara, bending her back like a bow to convert deep backhands into overhead strokes, went into lemon-time with a marginal 11-10 lead, which she duly enlarged to 14-11 after the resumption of hostilities.

When Okuhara powered to 16-12, it looked like curtains for Sindhu. But the Indian was far from done. Digging deep into her physical and mental reserves, she forced her tired body to rush the net behind her body smashes, and put away anything even marginally above the tape.

It was enthralling to watch the red-hot mental duel unfold on the green Hova matting in the vast stadium, as Sindhu, urged on by coaches Pullela Gopichand and Amrish Shinde from courtside, pulled back point by point, and went ahead to 18-17, and then 19-18. The Japanese made one final attempt at a desperate, all-out attack, but smashing was not quite her forte, and Sindhu stayed firm and resolute to bag the last two points, the final one on an unsuccessful Okuhara challenge on a linesman's sideline call.

Having indulged in a bruising, no-holds-barred contest for 74 minutes did not prevent the two gladiators from shaking hands warmly at the net, smiling and exchanging a few words with each other in the highest traditions of sportsmanship. It recalled to mind Sindhu's laudable gesture of crossing over to Carolina Marin's side of the court at the end of their 2016 Rio Olympics final, and assisting the tearful Spaniard to her feet with a hug and a word of congratulation.

There cannot be an iota of doubt that Sindhu will stand on the topmost rung of the rostrum at a World Championship in the foreseeable future, despite the cut-throat competition that exists in the women's game at the moment. The 22-year-old Indian next runs into another Japanese, the World's No 2 ranked player, Akane Yamaguchi, who has recently assumed ownership of a new set of premium wheels.

The powerful 20-year-old Yamaguchi, whom a colleague scribe described as having "legs like tree trunks", has added yards to her footspeed and is playing the best badminton of her life at the moment, a fact that could be seen from her convincing 21-15, 21-18 demolition of two-time world champion and Olympic gold medalist Carolina Marin, in a 52-minute quarter-final on Friday.

Sindhu sits on a 6-3 winning record against Yamaguchi, and has won three of their last four meetings, the sole aberration being a 15-21, 21-12, 21-19 loss in the title round of the year-ending Dubai Superseries finals in December 2017. The Indian was able to reverse that result with a straight-games win at the Badminton Asia Team Championships last month.

The way forward for Sindhu would be to maintain a sustained attack, keep the rallies short and avoid going on the defensive, since the super-fit Yamaguchi has unlimited stamina and has become extremely swift at the net to put away even a slightly loose return. Whoever wins their 10th career encounter can expect a Sunday outing with Taiwanese World No 1 and top seed, Tai Tzu Ying, who should not have undue difficulty in dispatching China's Chen Yufei in Saturday's other semi-final.

Also See: All England Open 2018: HS Prannoy breaks Chou Tien Chen hoodoo; Saina Nehwal falls once again to Tai Tzu Ying

All England Open 2018: PV Sindhu, HS Prannoy enter quarters; Kidambi Srikanth squanders match points in narrow loss

All England Open 2018: After win over Nozomi Okuhara, PV Sindhu feels she's getting better at finishing close games

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