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Crafty Sindhu turns tables on Ratchanok

TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images

At the end of her semi-final match against PV Sindhu at the Hong Kong Superseries, Intanon Ratchanok was out of options and ideas. She had lost the first game 21-17 and was down three match points at 20-17 in the second.

In the rally that followed, Ratchanok gambled, unable to find a clear opening. She jumped and smashed from her baseline hoping to find the white line along Sindhu's forehand. It appeared to have paid off as the line judge called it in. That relief was short lived as almost instantly, Sindhu would pump her fist and call for a challenge.

Sindhu had seen the shuttle go all the way through and indeed, Hawkeye would prove her right. The 43-minute match had been a brisk workout at the most. Sindhu will now go on to play her third Superseries final of the year - against Taiwan's Tai Tzu Ying, having won the title on the previous two occasions.

Sindhu's confidence was characteristic of her entire game against Ratchanok. At the outset, at least on paper, Sindhu might not have seemed like the best bet. Going into the match she was on the receiving end of a 4-1 head-to-head record against the Thai former World No. 1. In their last match at the Malaysia Open last year, Sindhu had not even made it to double digits in either game.

But that match had been played prior to the 2016 Olympics. And as has been made abundantly clear, Sindhu is a radically different player since then.

While Sindhu has always been dominant against opponents who attempt to match her with power, she has often been troubled by opponents with unorthodox strokes who don't allow her to settle into a rhythm. This has largely been the reason for Ratchanok's one-sided record against the Indian in the past.

But it was Sindhu who puzzled Ratchanok on Saturday evening. She had clearly found weaknesses in the Thai's play and targeted them consistently. When on the defense, she utilised strokes she has clearly been working on over the past year. And instead of hoping for a weak lift, Sindhu used her superior fitness to recover and position herself in stronger positions on court to exploit mishits.

There were few moments Ratchanok could actually feel she had the upper hand. She trailed for the entirety of the first game, that Sindhu wrapped up in 18 minutes. Ratchanok started poorly hitting a shuttle wide. Sindhu followed that up with a smash to her forehand and Ratchanok then made a return error on serve. Even when Ratchanok seemed to have caught Sindhu in a poor position at the back of the court, the Indian pulled out a stroke she has been using with increasing frequency-a defensive clear that found Ratchanok's forehand corner.

There would be more unusual subtleties from Sindhu. A variation at the net tricked Ratchanok to lift weakly and Sindhu obliged with a body smash to make it 14-7. Struggling to get Sindhu out of position, Ratchanok had to try for increasingly sharper angles. After conceding game point with another error, Ratchanok would lose the first game after a backhand net flick found the middle of the net.

Ratchanok started with more positivity in the second game, claiming the first point with a smash. Sindhu, though, was never far back. She leveled 4-4 with a drop smash that landed in front of a wrong footed Ratchanok. Nothing really seemed to work for the Thai.

Ratchanok had all but assured herself of a point when she had the Indian on her haunches at the receiving end of a body smash but the shuttle struck Sindhu's reflexively stuck out racquet and lobbed excruciatingly back into her own side of the court. That point made it 10-6 for Sindhu.

Ratchanok would fight to reduce the margin yet the pressure she was under to find a way past the Indian eventually cost her. A net shot played at a sharp angle could have given Ratchanok the chance to close in to 19-18, yet it fell wide and gave Sindhu match point.

A correctly chosen challenge later and Sindhu was in the final. She faces in Tzu Ying another tricky player with languid wrists. Sindhu has a 4-7 record against the Taiwanese player with losses in her last three encounters. Yet, as the match against Ratchanok showed, this is a Sindhu who at the very least is only going to get harder to face.