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All England Open 2021: PV Sindhu holds her nerve to beat Akane Yamaguchi in three-game thriller

PV Sindhu in action during the 2021 All England Open Badminton Championships at Utilita Arena Birmingham. Naomi Baker/Getty Images

In the end, it was two women chasing an unrequited dream. Akane Yamaguchi, a five-time quarterfinalist and PV Sindhu, one shy, in Birmingham. Neither has ever won an All England title. The 74-minute thriller ended with the Indian, double fisted and on her haunches in celebration, through to her second semifinals 16-21, 21-16, 21-19 after what was one of her finest performances of all time. Sindhu is now on course to run into her old rival, Nozomi Okuhara in the final.

On a day when three of the four women's quarterfinals ran on marathon limbs into three games, the Indo-Japanese contest pulled away with the crowning glory. Standing at just 5' 1", World No. 5 Yamaguchi tries to compensate for her vertical reach by hurling herself skywards in kicking, torso-twisting fashion. With her tactical nous, reared-to-perfection crosscourt smashes and ability to scoop the sharpest of returns, Yamaguchi plucked the first game by attacking Sindhu in the forecourt. In the tautly-contested 2018 semifinals of the tournament against her, Sindhu had fallen by a hair's breadth.

This Sindhu is a vastly different beast. She returned in the second game, in devastating touch. She threw in punch clears, downward shots, retrieved madly. The incrementally lengthening rallies chipped away at her energy reserves a touch, with a stern-looking chair umpire Chris Johannsen in no mood to allow out-of-turn breathers. Her dogged defence, walled, fortified and almost beyond breach, had the Japanese flopping back her head in visible exasperation at the end of most rallies.

The drift plotted a villainous cameo in the third against Yamaguchi, squirting her precision returns to the backline, wide on more than a few occasions. The Japanese then summoned her trusted crosscourt shots and pulled off a few how-did-she-do-that winners to pounce on four blinding points to draw even terms at 15-15. Sindhu cleverly had the shuttle changed just as her opponent was settling into a string of points. The new, faster bird, she knew, wasn't going to offer Yamaguchi any favours. At 19-all, a wily Sindhu employed a flick serve to wrong foot her opponent, and Yamaguchi, frustrated by the Indian's endless plots, pushed a return into the mesh in resignation.

"I am playing against her [Yamaguchi] after quite a long time," Sindhu told BWF. "In the first game I was making a lot of errors and hitting them out because I was on the side with the stronger drift. The second game was a lot of long rallies. Overall, it was anybody's game but I am happy to be on the winning side."

Yamaguchi wasn't as pleased. She laid part of the blame on her long layoff from the scene. "I could not manage to play my game," she told BWF. "I think I felt rushed to finish the point, which is a reason why I lost. I have to think at the beginning of the point how to change my game. I don't have much on-court experience [this is her first international event since last year's All England], which is a weak point at the moment."

Sindhu had had a fairly untroubled path to her second successive quarterfinals, making a quick meal of her lower-ranked earlier opponents, Soniia Cheah and Line Christophersen.

With grand nemesis Carolina Marin absent from the tournament on account of injury, it appears fortune might favor a brave Sindhu.. The last Indian to bring home an All England crown was coach Pullela Gopichand, close to two decades ago. Hope burns bright.

Lakshya falls in quarters

Pre-breakfast early morning calls to Lakshya Sen on match days are typically revealers for Vimal Kumar. "He quite dislikes playing defensive guys and I can tell from his voice whether he's looking forward to the match or it's an irritant he can't wait to get over with," says Vimal. On Friday, Lakshya, featuring in only his second All England Open, ran into one such roadblock in the quarterfinals - Dutch Mark Caljouw, ranked eight spots below him. The young Indian lost 17-21, 21-16, 17-21 in 88 minutes, bringing curtains on his nation's men's singles outing.

"I'm very disappointed with the way I played in the last few points," Lakshya told BWF, "I could've done better. There were just too many mistakes from the end. I should've played more patiently and stayed in the rallies. Overall, there are positives I can take away from this experience and making the quarterfinals is a good result for me."

Early on, Caljouw opened up an 11-8 lead in the mid-game interval and collected points in a cluster to take the opening game. The world No 28 Indian mounted a comeback in the second and despite some resistance in the third, he found himself steadily falling behind.

The 19-year-old from Almora, Uttarakhand, is coming off a difficult six-odd months, particularly struggling with a persistent lower back problem. "Lakshya's back goes into spasm and it's really terrible to watch," says Vimal, "I've seen how much pain he is in when it happens. There's no permanent fix for it at this point, we're told by doctors. All he can do is strengthen his back, manage the pain and play. He had nothing to lose going into this match. The key was to not allow his opponent's superior defense frustrate him and mess with his head." It's exactly what led to his unraveling in Friday's quarterfinals. To stay in the big matches, patience might be a virtue Lakshya might do well to befriend.