PV Sindhu’s assured medal at the badminton Worlds, India’s first in singles in nearly 30 years, hasn’t come easy. The 18-year-old had to beat two Chinese former World No.1s — Yihan Wang and Shixian Wang — to get to the semifinal stage. The feat is groundbreaking, much like Saina Nehwal’s, four years ago, of beating two top Chinese players — Lu Lan and future World No. 1 Wang Lin — to become the first Indian to win a Super Series title.
After that 2009 achievement, Nehwal notched up a number of victories over Chinese players, but never quite consistently. Sindhu might just manage it: she has won five of her last seven meetings against players from the powerhouse nation, starting with a hard-fought win over Li Xuerui, who had just won the Olympic singles gold medal. One of her defeats, against Yihan, had come with a dodgy knee.
Sindhu’s game, theoretically, should be easy to pick apart. Like most tall players, she is attacking and strong from the back court. But as with any advantage, there is a payoff: tall players are invariably slower bending down and stretching forward, making them vulnerable close to the net.
Sindhu, so far, hasn’t been found wanting at the net. She didn’t dominate close in against Shixian, winning fewer points (8 to 9). But what the stats don’t say is equally crucial. Against a rallier like Shixian, the net isn’t where Sindhu needs to win her points. She simply needs to be able to recover shuttles and keep them in play until she can find a winner of her own. Against the taller Yihan her agility gave her even more of an advantage as she was able to win more points at the net.
Sindhu is fast improving in other respects too. She has worked hard on her agility and her defence — in her early days, her coach Pullela Gopichand used to say this was an area of relative weakness. This isn’t to say that Sindhu is invulnerable. She herself says she needs to improve her endurance and she isn’t as confident against small, sharp players who play a parallel game. In the final of the 2013 India Open, this was exploited by Thailand’s Intanon Ratchanok, whom she was playing for the first time.
Ratchanok now stands between Sindhu and the gold medal match. It remains to be seen in their second encounter whether Sindhu has