No 'doubles' delight for Sindhu as India exit team event

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PV Sindhu didn't stop to celebrate after winning her opening match of India's women's team quarterfinal match against Japan. The two-time World silver medallist had just beaten World No. 2 Akane Yamaguchi in straight games -- 21-18, 21-19 -- to give India a 1-0 lead in the tie, but she still had a job to do.

Two matches later, she returned the court, partnering with Ashwini Ponnappa, hoping to keep India in the contest.

While Sindhu, the singles player, needs no introduction, it's rare to see her playing doubles. For a viewer accustomed to seeing her scuttling to pick shuttles before setting up smashes past stranded opponents, it makes for strange viewing to see her leave the bird to someone else.

This doesn't mean she plays no doubles at all. It's not uncommon to see her playing alongside a partner on the practice courts of the Gopichand Academy."I play some doubles in Hyderabad. Because there are two people on the other side of the net, it makes you work on your reflexes a lot more and prepares you to deal with shots from unusual angles," Sindhu said.

And while there's an obvious difference between practice and competition, the Indian has had more success than might be expected on the international circuit, winning 10 of the 19 matches she's played over the course of her career. "She's got a great smash and that's great to have on the doubles court. I've said it before that I'd really like having Sindhu as a partner on court," Ponappa said.

"The angles you play with in doubles are a lot different than what you are used to in singles. There were many times when I and Sindhu would be tapping and expecting a winner but the shuttle would be returned." Ashwini Ponnappa

And so, in a high-stakes match against Japan, it wasn't exactly a surprise that Sindhu walked out alongside Ponappa. "It wasn't as if this was an unusual combination. We have played together before. In fact, I've always said that if I could partner any player it would be Sindhu. The last time we played together at the Asian Games, we beat Thailand to win a bronze medal in the team event," Ponappa said.

That victory for the scratch team would still be considered an upset against Saralee Thungthongkam and Sapsiree Taerattanachai (who were ranked in the top 20 in their peak). But it would take another level of fortune to beat the reigning Olympic champions Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi.

And so, despite a decent start by the Indians, they steadily slid far behind before losing 21-13, 21-12. Ponappa admitted that the Japanese seemed to have expected their surprise pick. "I think they kind of knew what we were trying," she said.

Sindhu, in particular, seemed to be targeted as a weak link by her experienced rivals. "They forced a lot of errors out of me," admitted Sindhu, who conceded the final point of the match with a misplaced smash.

This isn't to be unexpected. "The angles you play with in doubles are a lot different than what you are used to in singles. And you have to be a lot more precise with your strokes. There were many times when I and Sindhu would be tapping and expecting a winner but the shuttle would be returned. That's something you have to get used to," said Ponappa.

For what it's worth, their Japanese opponents were respectful of their efforts, comparing it favourably with India's first doubles combination of Sikki Reddy and SA Sunil, who lost 15-21, 6-21 to Yuki Fukushima and Sayaka Hirota. "I think they were much harder to beat than the first doubles pair. They made us make some very good shots to get our points," Matsumoto told Japanese reporters after the match.

But the praises aside, Sindhu is glad to stick to her day job when she competes for the women's singles medals in three days. "I guess I won't be leaving singles any time soon," she smiled.