The prospect of a PV Sindhu vs. Nozomi Okuhara final at the All England Open in Birmingham rapidly went from steady hope to pipedream on Saturday. A visibly spent Sindhu, taking the court within 15 hours of her punishing quarterfinal against Japan's Akane Yamaguchi, let Thai No. 2 Pornpawee Chochuwong, riding on some delicious counter-attacking play, bully her into submission 21-17, 21-9 in her second-ever All England semifinal.
The Thai came into the match almost spanking fresh, having spent a little over 100 minutes on court peppered over three rounds of play, while Sindhu had poured herself into a 74-minute contest late on Friday night. "There must be a lot of lactic acid in her legs after yesterday's three-setter," the commentator remarked as the Indian rapidly fell behind in the first game.
After her whooshing hand speed against Yamaguchi, Sindhu almost appeared two frames slower on Saturday, struggling with the length of her lifts and falling to errors in a bunch. Coming into the match, Sindhu had a dominant 4-1 record against Chochuwong, overcoming her most recently in the group stages of the World Tour Finals despite the patch of glum results she endured at the start of the year. The Thai, however, has been in fine touch for a while now - beating both Carolina Marin and Tai Tzu Ying within the window of a year.
A crestfallen Sindhu later admitted to "not being able to do anything" in the face of Chochuwong's precision shots. "Everybody aims to be in the final but it's over for now," she told BWF. "I think it was her day, everything she was hitting was landing on the line. I just couldn't do anything about it. If I'd controlled my unforced errors, maybe things would've been different." Chochuwong generously offered nationalist sentiment over coveting a maiden All England title for herself. "I hope Intanon (Ratchanok) reaches the final, because whether I win or lose, Thailand will win the trophy."
Sindhu, who will next play the India Open in May, should draw heart from her spirited pushback from a game down against Yamaguchi, in one of her bravest matches of all time. It was revelatory of her striking levels of resilience and calm in the face of a pugnacious opponent, an unfavourable scoreline and a hustling umpire. "The way Sindhu rallied and kept the shuttle in play, not making mistakes under pressure was quite remarkable," says former national coach Vimal Kumar. "It's the best badminton I've seen her play in a while. Recovery after such a brutal match can often be difficult. It would also depend on how much sleep she managed to get. The first couple of tournaments were no good for her but that one match was enough for everyone to believe that she's back."
While it's often easy to be blindsided by Sindhu's rampaging style and clump her alongside purely attack-motored players, hers isn't just a game stitched around power and scorching smashes. The Sindhu of today is vastly craftier and whip-smart in her judgement than the one who stood on the Rio podium. The season is still young and if precedent is anything to go by, she'll be gleaning the lessons from a sloppy semifinal.