PV Sindhu v Nozomi Okuhara, Season 4, Episode 4. The opening 18 minutes teetered really close to 2019's bloodbath of Basel. You thought you had a grip on the storyline about to unfold. But the 50 minutes that followed turned out to be a whole new series.
Contests between the World No. 6 Indian and the higher-ranked Japanese have, over the past three years, assumed a rivalry of deep complexion. Ahead of this match, Sindhu had prevailed over Okuhara in four out of their five previous meetings. But on Friday, beyond the first game, where Sindhu summoned her Basel-esque belligerence of last year's World Championship, it was Okuhara, petite and all-titanium, who tirelessly motored on for a 12-21, 21-15, 21-13 win in the All England Open quarterfinals.
The 2017 World Championship final in Glasgow that lasted a gargantuan 110 minutes and finished with Okuhara on the winning side was the point of inflection in this previously harmless match-up between the two players. Suddenly, a rivalry was thrust upon us. They ran into each other thereafter at two major finals -- that of the 2018 World Tour Finals and 2019 World Championships, both of which Sindhu won.
Sindhu amped up early on Friday, pressing the shuttle into the backline and finding the lines with clean precision. She was soon lounging on a five-point cushion in the first game. Okuhara's desperate body shots too weren't enough to puncture Sindhu's lead, which soon morphed into nine game points. The Japanese threw anxious looks at the pair of coaches at her end for answers. She wouldn't find any until the break.
She returned on court for the second game with just the right armory, a low serve and high intensity. The Japanese drew Sindhu into a 38-shot rally early in the second game with the Indian's drop shot finding the net and Okuhara rollerblading to a 5-2 lead. Sindhu was now drooping, seeps of frustration trickling in. It soon showed up in her spraying shuttles wide and allowing her angst to sink its molars. Okuhara leapt at a flagging Sindhu like a jungle cat, pushing a body smash smack in the middle, one that the Indian responded to with a helpless, almost accusatory stare at the umpire even as the usually undemonstrative Japanese walked away with a pumped fist.
Okuhara soon jumped to a six-point lead. A tireless runner and eternal retriever who lost all six finals she featured in last year, her steely will was now bloody determination. She kept the shuttle flat and stretched the rallies and the Sindhu smash went from intermittent to barely there. The 2016 All England champion soon bolted to seven match points and Sindhu was now gulping hard and attempting a brave front. It was all that was left to offer.
Typically, Sindhu's performance trajectory has been one that's been built around peaking at big events -- finals at the World Championships, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, World Tour Finals and the Olympics in the past four years. Throughout the rest of the year-round circuit you'd see her pack up early. In the big ones that matter, Sindhu is a whole different beast. She was the only Indian survivor in a draw punctuated by early exits by her compatriots this time. This may have been a competition she'd been hoping and grinding to peak at. With barely four months between now and Tokyo, she has a new level to find and a fresh gear to hit.