At the conclusion of the medal ceremony at the end of her Dubai World Superseries Finals title match on Sunday, PV Sindhu found herself in an awkward position. The normal procedure once the medals are presented is for both players to stand together on the top of the platform and pose for pictures. Sindhu inched close but ultimately stayed put on her side. She held her silver medal aloft, even as Akane Yamaguchi hoisted the giant metal shuttle that looked even more outsized against her tiny, five-foot-nothing frame.
"It wasn't my time," Sindhu shrugged afterwards.
It isn't for the first time that Sindhu had to be satisfied with being second best on the day. Undoubtedly, the 22-year-old has compiled a tremendous body of work at the international level. Yet, in the most important matches of her career, she has fallen short at the conclusion of epic battles. Her 94-minute marathon against Yamaguchi at the Sheikh Hamdan Indoor Stadium in Dubai ended in a 21-15, 12-21, 19-21 loss. It has to be categorised alongside her losses in three games against Nozomi Okuhara in the final of the 2017 World Championships and Carolina Marin in the final of the 2016 Olympics.
Each of these encounters has been an attritional contest. Sunday's match went on for an hour and 34 minutes. The matches in Glasgow and Rio, were an hour and 50 minutes and an hour and 23 minutes, respectively.
It isn't immediately obvious why Sindhu has fallen in similar style against three opponents, all of whom have very different styles of play. Spaniard Marin is one of the few left-handers on the international circuit, creating unusual angles by virtue of that ability. Okuhara and Yamaguchi are players who thrive in the rally. While Okuhara is incredibly agile, Yamaguchi thrives on her ability to create shots under pressure.
What all these three opponents have is an ability to push the pace of the rallies. On the international circuit, Sindhu is feared for her court coverage and her power from the back of the court. This is particularly obvious when the Indian has time to play her shots. Yet as Yamaguchi's South Korean coach Park Joo-Bong has observed, Sindhu isn't the most skillful of players. And the way to beat her is with pace, leaving her as little time as possible between shots.
Sindhu has overcome this frailty by working on her endurance. Typically, rally players need to be beaten at their style - served a dose of their own medicine. Despite a surprisingly good drop shot from the back court, Yamaguchi doesn't have the deception in her game to really trouble Sindhu. But Sindhu wasn't entirely fit going into the final. She was clearly unwell, showing signs of a cold. With her lungs operating on less than a hundred percent capacity, it was clear Yamaguchi would take advantage.
Sindhu won the first game in 23 minutes. Yamaguchi was playing Sindhu more on reputation. She played shuttles she could have left out and committed to full smashes even when she hadn't gotten to the shuttle in time. However, Sindhu was fading fast. Her reduced stamina meant that she could no longer keep up with Yamaguchi. A clear hit long saw the Japanese come back from 0-5 to lead 7-5. A 29-shot rally saw the scores leveled, before a tired push wide gave Yamaguchi the lead. From then on, Sindhu fell further behind. Even though she appeared to have given up on the second game to preserve her strength for the third, it was clear she was running on fumes.
The Japanese was able to drain Sindhu further by working her to the corners at will. The lunged forehand net shot, never one of the Indian's better strokes grew steadily lethargic. From the sidelines, her coach Pullela Gopichand yelled at her to play straight. He reckoned Yamaguchi was picking her cross court shots. The advice was for Sindhu to conserve her energy and hit winners only where she was on top of the shuttle. The hope was for Yamaguchi to make mistakes in her eagerness to close out the match. The Japanese made one to let Sindhu level at 17 all but not after that. It was a Sindhu backhand lift that set up championship point and a push into the net that gave Yamaguchi what she said "was the biggest win of her career."
Despite the disappointment of losing yet another close match, Sindhu could see the silver lining. She ended the year with 44 wins in 57 matches, the most by an Indian in the Superseries era. Despite not being anywhere near her best physical shape, she nearly pulled off a victory on mental fortitude alone. Gold will come soon enough . "It's been a good year. I hope with the same confidence, I will go further next time," she said.