August company: Big-game Sindhu peaking at the right time


From a spectator's perspective, momentum in a sporting encounter is a variable that can be felt, but not always quantified. That certainly wasn't the case in the women's singles semifinal at the 2019 World Championships between PV Sindhu and Chen Yufei. That the Chinese never really got going was apparent from the remarkable statistic that it took until the 59th point of the match, with the score reading 21-7 19-12 in the Indian's favour, that Yufei, a two-time world medalist and the current World No.3, actually picked up two points in a row.

While Yufei was simply treading water and not really getting anywhere, Sindhu was blitzing her way to where she needed to be. Where she wants to be is at the biggest stage of the biggest tournaments. There are few sportspersons, and certainly no Indians, who are nearly as consistent as her here.

Since 2013, Sindhu has won medals at all but one world level tournament - two World Championships silvers, two bronzes and one Olympic silver - she has taken part in. Should you ask National coach Pullela Gopichand to describe his most successful ward, he would, as recently as this year, always refer to the 24-year-old as "a work in progress". Even back in 2016 though, he had termed her a "big match player who thrives under pressure.

Sindhu's 2019 wasn't terrible - far from it. Yet by her own lofty standards, what she had to show for it -- a solitary final at the Indonesia Open -- unremarkable.

Yet, that's often been the case with Sindhu. The month of August is when she truly decides to shift into her highest gear. In 2016, she hadn't even reached a Superseries semifinal before she created history at the Rio Games. She had just a single title in 2017 and none in 2018 when she won silver at the World championships in those years.

Her five medals are equal to the medals won by all other Indians at the Worlds

It also puts her level with Chinese legend Zhang Ning, who too has five medals at the World Championships, though one of her's is a gold. Sindhu will look to do that in her third straight final.

If Sindhu chose to peak at this month, it certainly shows. Her fitness was apparent in Friday's quarterfinal against Tai Tzu Ying. Sindhu is at her most menacing when she muscles past her opponents but playing that way takes a toll physically. Throughout the 71-minute encounter against the Taiwanese player, though, the Indian hardly flagged. Chen came through her own three-set match on Friday and didn't nearly have the fresh legs to deal with Sindhu's explosiveness.

There was no let up in Sindhu's aggressive game on Saturday. Chen tried to rally at the start but Sindhu's backcourt game was solid and she picked apart her opponent's backhand almost at will. Chen tried to take the game closer to the net and tried to speed things up, hoping that Sindhu would struggle with the pace. It was the Chinese who blinked first more often than not, though, making errors as she tried to hit faster. At more than one instance she made bad judgements on line calls, almost willing the point to be over before it actually was. A brief, forgivable lapse in focus from Sindhu gave her first two consecutive points late in the match and then another two a point later. There would be no third straight as she simply hit a service long.

Sindhu's been in this situation before. She got to the final at the 2017 Worlds in similar high octane fashion, thrashing Chen 21-13 21-10 in similar fashion, but was worn down in three over nearly two hours by Nozomi Okuhara. It's likely things will be different this time around.

For one the courts in Basel clearly suit her. There is no AC here so the shuttle travels slowly with little drift. Okuhara will have to work even harder to get Sindhu chasing the shuttle. Ratchanok's tricks shots too will travel a fraction of a second slower giving Sindhu time to adjust. There's also the fact that Sindhu will have the psychological edge. She has a 5-3 record against Okuhara since her loss at the 2017 World final . Ratchanok meanwhile hasn't beaten Sindhu since 2016 and has lost 3 times since then.

Sindhu, though, isn't taking things lightly. "There is one more match and I would want to get gold. I'm happy but not satisfied yet. I just need to focus and give my best," she told the BWF website.

She might have faltered twice in the past but she's given herself as good a chance of winning that elusive gold. A year ago, after her loss in the final to Carolina Marin, Sindhu had stayed optimistic of her chances to eventually claim gold. "We never know. Anything can happen any moment. You just have to be there," she had said then.

Sindhu's there, now, and she has gotten there in a hurry.