It may be decidedly presumptuous to think of India's premier female shuttler, PV Sindhu, as the player who will stand on the top-most rung of the victory rostrum at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.
For one, the Indian's form leading into the prestigious quadrennial event has been anything but encouraging, with not a single title since her epochal World Championships win in Basel on 25 August 2019. Her world ranking has dropped to No 7, even as her World Tour ranking remains static at No 4. Her form, going into the event that offers the most coveted gold medal in the sport, has been patchy, and does not inspire confidence in her supporters.
Nevertheless, a number of factors tilt the scales in Sindhu's favour, not least amongst which is the absence of defending champion, Carolina Marin, who had pipped the Indian for the gold at the Rio Olympics in 2016. The Spanish left-hander had returned strong and swift after surgery to her right knee, injured during the Indonesian Open in January 2019, and had shown outstanding form in the three tournaments " including the delayed World Tour finals " that comprised the Asian leg of the circuit in Bangkok in January this year.
Marin, who also has three World Championships titles to her credit, would have been a hot favourite to defend her crown in Tokyo, but had the misfortune to get sidelined as a result of an even worse injury to her hitherto sound left knee, sustained during training. The Spaniard is reported to have torn the anterior cruciate ligament and both the menisci, and will require surgery and another lengthy spell of rehabilitation that puts her out for the rest of the year.
The most significant factor in seriously considering Sindhu as the next Olympic gold medallist is her impressive record as a big-match player. However poorly she plays during the relatively minor events, the Indian ace invariably comes up trumps in the big tournaments " as her four medals (two bronze in 2013 and 2014, silver in 2017, and gold in 2019) at the World Championships, silver at the 2016 Rio Olympics and gold at the 2018 World Tour Finals reveal.
In this one department, Sindhu has proved to be way ahead of her most dangerous opponent at Tokyo, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei. Even though the 26-year-old Taiwanese shuttler holds the world record for being World No 1 for the most number of weeks (148 weeks between 2017 and 2019), and has been widely celebrated as an all-time great of the game, Tai has always come up short at the Olympics and World Championships.
The 25-year-old Sindhu was Tai's bugbear at both the 2016 Olympics and the 2018 World Championships. Even though the strokeful, deceptive Chinese Taipei player holds a decisive 11-5 advantage over her Indian rival in head-to-head career meetings, she has lost to Sindhu in the Round of 16 at Rio, in the quarter-finals at Basel, and at the group stage of the 2018 World Tour finals. All three matches have been tough three-gamers, with the closest being a 12-21, 23-21, 21-19 scoreline at Basel.
File image of Tai Tzu Ying. AFP
Tai's artistry can only be curbed in two ways " by simply overpowering her with a barrage of smashes and deep tosses to her comparatively vulnerable forehand deep corner, or by engaging her in long rallies and waiting for the error which the Taiwanese will inevitably commit by going for the sharpest of sharp strokes. Both stratagems have their drawbacks, since Tai almost always dominates the pace and trend of the rallies, and also has a reliable defence that often converts a defensive return into an attacking shot with just a late flick of the wrist.
While both Sindhu and Tai play an attacking game, there are two super-fit players in the fray who rely heavily on a game of attrition to wear down their opponents, and will, in addition, have home advantage. Uber Cup team-mates Nozomi Okuhara and Akane Yamaguchi, trained for the past eight years by the canny South Korean former world champion Park Joo Bong, will have been practising in the main Olympic Hall in Tokyo, and will be primed to take top honours in front of whatever crowds are allowed into the stadium in these COVID-dominated times.
How similar are the curriculum vitae of Okuhara and Sindhu, and how dissimilar their playing styles! Both badminton stars boast of medals at the Olympics (Okuhara bagged a bronze at Rio 2016) and multiple ones at the World Championships, and were born within four months of each other in 1995 " Okuhara in March, and Sindhu in July.
The Japanese shuttler, stands at just over five feet, while the Indian, at 5' 11", towers almost a foot above her. Sindhu has built her game on smashing the shuttle with tremendous power, while Okuhara covers the court with the speed and grace of a gazelle, and relies more on her delicate precision of stroke and her accuracy. With her exemplary fitness, the Japanese is capable of handling longer rallies and lengthy matches with greater panache than her taller, younger arch-rival.
The two have produced cliffhangers almost every time they have met in recent times, and their close head-to-head record underlines their competitiveness. The scales tilt 9-8 in Sindhu's favour after 17 meetings, with only one match having been decided by the short route " a runaway 21-7, 21-7 triumph for the Indian in the 2019 World Championship title clash.
Their earlier World Championship final encounter in 2017 had stretched across 110 minutes, and is considered one of the greatest finals of all time, with Okuhara getting her nose across the finishing line by a 21-19, 20-22, 22-20 scoreline after both girls had played themselves to a standstill.
Sindhu readily admits that the thundering triumph in Basel was a one-off, when she herself was in a once-in-a-lifetime kind of form, and floating in "the zone", having beaten Tai, China's Chen Yufei and Okuhara in quick succession in the final three matches to the gold medal. "Every time we play, it is a new game, I must say," Sindhu says. "I don't think about other matches, and just play each match like a fresh game."
Like Okuhara, another tiny titan is bound to loom like a colossus on the Tokyo landscape in July. Akane Yamaguchi, who will celebrate her 24th birthday on 6 June, plays the same kind of game as her more decorated compatriot but has the ability to switch tactics mid-game and be more aggressive in the rallies. By the same token, she ends up making a few more errors than the rock-steady Okuhara, and can be considered temperamentally marginally inferior to her fellow countrywoman.
Sindhu boasts an 11-8 career head-to-head record against Yamaguchi, with the most recent point having gone in her favour as a result of a wafer-thin 16-21, 21-16, 21-19 win in 76 minutes of intense strife at the All England Championships in March this year. The diminutive Japanese had earlier whittled down Sindhu's head-to-head lead with some telling victories in the period after the Indian's 2019 World Championship win.
While home advantage will come to the aid of the Japanese twosome, a lack of recent match practice could prove to be a serious issue with China's Chen Yufei, who displaced Tai Tzu Ying in the World No 1 stakes in December 2019. With the COVID pandemic having kept the Chinese shuttlers at home for the greater part of 2020 and 2021 (they cried off from the trio of Bangkok tournaments and the All England, earlier this year), the 23-year-old Yufei could be intensely vulnerable in the earlier rounds at Tokyo before she can get her bearings.
Yufei's basic strengths are her all-round game, swiftness of foot and general efficiency on the court. After being at the receiving end against Sindhu initially until she worked out her opponent's strengths and weaknesses, the Chinese star has been having the better of the exchanges against the Indian of late. While the 7-21, 14-21 thrashing at Sindhu's hands in the 2019 World Championships must continue to rankle, Yufei was convincing in her 20-22, 21-16, 21-12 triumph at the group stage of the 2019 World Tour finals in Guangzhou, barely four months later.
"It was a good long match, and I did well to recover from a bad start and win the first game," Sindhu said, after the Guangzhou loss to Yufei, who expectedly had the home crowd on her side right through the encounter. "But I gave it away in the third game by making a lot of mistakes after the change of ends put me at a disadvantage as regards the drift. I have to work on my mistakes and come back stronger next time."
Every tournament starts with a dark horse, and South Korean teenager An Se Young is one such player. She looks complete in all respects, temperamentally strong, and therefore touted to be a future world champion.
The 19-year-old had a fantastic breakout season in 2019, winning five World Tour titles and ending runner-up in one. Along the way, she had convincing victories over the likes of Carolina Marin, Li Xuerui, Wang Zhiyi, Sung Ji Hyun " and Sindhu, in the only match they have played so far. She was also runner-up to Yamaguchi in the Thailand Masters, earlier this year.
Of the other competitors that could be a thorn in Sindhu's side in Tokyo, the name of Ratchanok Intanon comes readily to mind. As a precocious teenager, the Thai stroke merchant became the youngest world champion in 2013 by beating defending champion Li Xuerui of China. It was the same competition in which Sindhu, six months younger than her, settled for the bronze, the first of four medals she was to pocket at the six World Championships held between 2013 and 2019.
After becoming an instant celebrity in her home country, Intanon lost steam and became a victim of indifferent fitness at the world level. Following several years of poor results that have not done justice to her massive talent, Intanon has worked harder and come back stronger in the past two years, appearing fitter and more determined than in the interim years.
Intanon, one of the few players in the world to boast a positive head-to-head record against Tai Tzu Ying, had this to say about the Indian ace after the All England in March 2019: "Sindhu sometimes probably gets excited like me, so mentality is important. It controls everything. With good mentality, Sindhu can win more titles. She is also under more pressure because she lost in big tournaments and she expects to win when she plays next in big events. She is too anxious about the results."
The record shows that Sindhu got over her anxiety blues, and played like a dream at the Basel World Championships, barely five months later. However, her body language continues to be under scrutiny, and her fitness levels in her recent outings " where she has been repeatedly cautioned by chair umpires for wasting time " also remains a cause for concern.
To improve her fitness and peak at just the right time, Sindhu has been working hard under Korean coach Park Tae Sang at Hyderabad's Gachibowli Stadium, away from the allegedly restrictive atmosphere of the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy, where she trained and played for over a decade since her early teens. Her training is currently being conducted at the Suchitra Academy under the sharp eyes of her father, former national volleyball player, PV Ramana.
All things considered, Sindhu is as ready as she could possibly be, to ascend the top step of the rostrum at the Tokyo Olympics, less than two months away. Nothing less than the yellow metal will satisfy either her or her myriad Indian fans.