Red-hot Sindhu enters favourite in epic 2017 rematch


PV Sindhu is the reigning BWF World Tour Finals champion. She's also the reigning silver medalist at the Olympics, World Championships, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. On Sunday, she'll have the chance to add gold to her already impressive haul when she takes on Nozomi Okuhara.

Back in 2013, in her maiden appearance at the tournament, Sindhu stunned the defending champion and reigning Olympic silver-medalist Wang Yihan (her 20 Superseries titles are also the most in women's singles) in the third round and went on to win bronze. Six years later, she's in the final for the third edition in succession after defeating China's highest-ranked player, Chen Yufei, in straight games.

Sindhu has been blowing Chinese opposition away for a few years now. While Saina v China was the dominant theme in the early 2010s, it is Sindhu who holds the superior record. Her head-to-head record at the World Championships against Chinese players is an imposing 7-0.

Sindhu has won a medal at four of the five previous Worlds she has played, and the player that has defeated her in each of those four editions has gone on to win the tournament.

One of those four players is Nozomi Okuhara, who defeated Sindhu in the 2017 final, a match many consider to be one of the greatest of all time. When Okuhara won in 2017, she became the first Japanese player in history to win a singles title at the World Championships.

Sindhu will be looking to do the same for India on Sunday. She can take inspiration from the fact that she defeated Okuhara in straight games in last year's Worlds quarterfinals enroute to the final. In fact, Sindhu has won three of her last four matches against Okuhara, with her lone loss coming at the Singapore Open earlier this year, where she looked clearly short of match practice.

Still, you can't blame Sindhu if she has a feeling of déjà vu. Back in 2017, much like 2019. she was the outright favourite for the final. She had defeated Okuhara in the semifinals during the 2016 Rio Olympics and had blitzed Chen in the semis back then. too.

On the other hand, Okuhara had to battle for three games in 2017 to defeat Saina Nehwal in the semis, coming from a game down to win 12-21, 21-17, 21-10. This time round, Okuhara defeated 2013 champion Ratchanok Intanon 17-21, 21-18, 21-15 to make her way into the final.

From then to now, Okuhara's biggest strength remains the same. What sets her apart from other players is her ability to seamlessly switch plans when they are not working. She also has the priceless ability to make opponents play at her pace and tire them out.

Back in 2017, Sindhu led at the changeover in each of the three games but lost the big points towards the end, even squandering a 19-17 lead in the final game.

That match is remembered for its titanic rallies and holds the record of being the longest women's singles final at the tournament but what will aid Sindhu here is the absence of drift. Sindhu can take advantage of her height and hit through Okuhara, something that she has struggles to do on slower courts with drift.

Moreover, the two have had remarkably similar results this year so far. Both of them have not won a title yet, with Okuhara losing three finals and Sindhu one.

Sindhu had a slow start to 2019 and took time to adapt to new coach Kim Ji Hyun's methods. However, there has been a noticeable change in Sindhu's game since the Indonesia Open earlier this year. Sindhu has looked to be a lot more aggressive from deeper positions in the court and her movement has been sharper when opponents have tried to use the much-tested technique of making her lunge forward by playing softer shots closer to the net.

Kim was known for her net play and Sindhu has made conscious attempts to try and control the net more in the last few months instead of being drawn into marathon rallies from deep in the court.

Okuhara has spent 20 minutes more than Sindhu on court in her run to the final but we know by now that both these women are tireless and fatigue might not really be a factor. What will be a factor, though, is the pace of the rallies and holding on to the lead.

If Sindhu manages to not let Okuhara slow down the rallies and holds on to the lead whenever she gets one, this final might be a blowout like last year. Just that Sindhu will be the favourite to finish on the other end.