OLYMPICS WS SF – Sindhu to challenge Marin for gold!

Both women’s singles semi-finals were closed out in straight games by the two racing with a lead foot.  India betters the bronze it received at London 2012 but this time […]

Both women’s singles semi-finals were closed out in straight games by the two racing with a lead foot.  India betters the bronze it received at London 2012 but this time the new colour medal will be hung around the neck of a different athlete.

By Aaron Wong. Photos: Yves Lacroix for Badmintonphoto (live)

What do all four women’s semi-finalists have in common? Each at twenty-one years old found herself prematurely having earnt a spot in a big title final.

At London 2012, then third ranked Chinese woman Li Xuerui grabbed Olympic gold over world #1 stablemate Wang Yihan.  In 2014, from a game deficit Carolina Marin of Spain beat out Li at both their maiden chances to become World Champion.  And most recently, Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara fought back from 14-17 in the rubber to reign as the latest All England heroine, right on her 21st birthday!  What’s left of this pattern is for India’s Pursala Venkata Sindhu (pictured left) to convert her upcoming unexpected Rio Olympic final into a career-defining moment too.

Whipped into submission

Since both feature in the top half of the draw, only one twenty-one year old gets to go forth and, as fairy tales go, it is the one still to blossom to fuller potential.  Sindhu, having made a name for herself since 2012 as a giant-killer, is yet to string together five such performances in a row to take home a Superseries title, let alone one of the aforementioned badminton holy trinity.

The colour of Rio’s field of play aptly foretold the Indian’s progress.  It was another peachy day at the office for the ninth seed, who repeatedly whipped forehand drive shots cross court and punished slightly short high lifts at the first time of asking.

Persisting on purpose with serving high, thereby preferring to deal with sharp drops or smashes -instead of being sent far from centre base straight off the bat – was the lesser of two evils Nozomi Okuhara (pictured right) must have decided against her opponent who’s 24 centimetres taller and accelerating the match.  The lack of mixing up serves, however, cost her at 17-18 when a steep winner eventually pierced through for a quick point at this crucial juncture.

Beautiful stroke variation played out as the women jostled for the commanding role.  Ultimately, the back-breaking effort of not giving away the advantage within rallies as well as demanding little margin for error on rear court smashes flying across the net showed the odd crack. Thus, Okuhara’s usual low unforced error rate still hurt her campaign to pull up square or ahead when it really counted.

Renowned for extraordinary, if not revolutionary, footwork especially given her barely exceeding five foot stature, Okhuara was forced to dive uncharacteristically regularly to save shots and in the process rely on her elbows to cushion the amount of sudden change of momentum and assist with rebalancing swiftly.

The Japanese remained continuously on the chase despite clearly anticipating the replies, and wanting for a solution against the unrelenting pace.  She stayed close behind in the scoreline during the opening game in order to tire out her rival, which worked in their previous encounters although the reprieve never came today.

Rather, the opposite happened.  Sindhu refusal to rally and her steamrolling an unbelievable 10 consecutive points after the second game interval to arrive at match point spelt the inevitable.  India triumphed over Japan 21-19, 21-10.

Incomplete contest

Carolina Marin (pictured) sought out every opportunity to dominate points by moving forward like a front court doubles player and it paid dividends in ousting defending champion Li Xuerui, 21-14, 21-16.

Marin’s quality was a class above in all departments, from hunger to win, to hand skills, to escaping being backed into a corner.  At 4-5 in the second game, Li engineered all the right moves of punch clearing deep behind her opponent, reaching the net first, making the shuttle cross so that the opponent has to travel the full distance.

But, remarkably, Marin plugged all the gaps and won the point through faster, unworried court coverage as well as turning the scenario on its head so that Li ended up needing to answer the same kinds of questions she had posed the Spaniard.

Unlike Sindhu, Marin’s tempo did cool temporarily in the second game at the same time as Li warmed up into her baseline rhythm.

Down 18-16, Li Xuerui (pictured) leapt and landed awkwardly on her left leg, immediately falling to the floor for some time.  She chose to finish the match but didn’t exert herself.  The flow wasn’t with Li by this point in the match but it’s hardly the way Marin would like to remember advancing into the gold medal match to play Sindhu.  Expect the Spain versus India match to emulate tennis’s Azarenka-Sharapova encounters as far as the volume on shrieking war cries goes.

The medal decider between Li Xuerui and Nozomi Okuhara is scheduled as the second match of Friday but it’s more than likely once again a Chinese star will be unfit to contest for bronze properly as was the case with Wang Xin’s knee injury sustained at the London Games — except that Wang forfeited after having secured the opening game.

Click here for complete Thursday results

Aaron Wong

About Aaron Wong

Aaron Wong only ever coveted badminton's coolest shot - a reverse backhand clear. He is renowned for two other things: 1) Writing tournament previews that adjust the focus between the panorama of the sport's progress, down to the microscopic level of explaining the striking characteristics of players; 2) Dozing off during men's doubles at the London Olympic Games. Contact him at: aaron @ badzine.net