There are five results (four of them featuring events at the pinnacle of the sport) of stellar women's singles badminton finals over the past five years, involving three players " Carolina Marin of Spain, PV Sindhu of India and Nozomi Okuhara of Japan " that merit a penetrating look:
2016 Olympics, Rio de Janeiro: Marin beat Sindhu 19-21, 21-12, 21-15
2017 World Championships, Glasgow: Okuhara beat Sindhu 21-19, 20-22, 22-20
2018 World Championships, Nanjing: Marin beat Sindhu 21-19, 21-10
2019 World Championships, Basel: Sindhu beat Okuhara 21-7, 21-7
2021 Swiss Open, Basel: Marin beat Sindhu 21-12, 21-5
Note the common factor in all these results of that particular year's most important tournament, even if the player has ended up on the losing end four times out of five. PV Sindhu features in all five finals, while Marin figures in three, and Okuhara in two.
It must, however, be underscored that Marin missed the 2019 Basel World Championships through injury, having suffered a knee ligament tear in January that year, while playing the Indonesian Open final against Saina Nehwal. Okuhara, along with the rest of her Japanese teammates, both male and female, chose to give the 2021 Swiss Open a miss.
Sindhu has thus conclusively proved herself to be a big-match player, and has showed consistency in the really big tournaments, rarely bowing out before the business end of the competition. Two bronze medals (2013 and 2014), two silver (2017 and 2018) and one gold medal (2019) at the sport's official World Championships, plus the Olympic silver (2016), provide mute evidence of her quality.
Indeed, over the past eight years, 2015 has been the only year when the Hyderabadi has failed to make an impact in a 'big' tournament. One has, of course, to omit 2020 from the calculations, in view of the cancellation of all tournaments, as also the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics.
That said, a disquieting trend, from the Indian point of view, has to be perforce acknowledged in the Marin-Sindhu clashes " that the left-handed Spaniard has been beating the Indian with a greater degree of ease in succeeding encounters. Whereas the 2016 Olympic final went the full distance, and it was difficult to separate the two antagonists until the final few points, the 2018 World Championship final only had a tight first game; and the just-concluded 2021 Swiss Open final was an abject rout.
Against the tireless Okuhara, who had managed to pip Sindhu by two points in the extra-points duel in the decider of their classic, 110-minute long 2017 World Championship final, the Indian managed to overturn the result into a totally dominant, one-sided pummelling of the Japanese at Basel. So much so, that Okuhara broke down in uncontrollable tears at the end, unable to figure out what had gone wrong on the day, and how she had lost in such an ignominious manner to her familiar adversary.
With Marin-Sindhu, the equation has moved in reverse; and the Spanish southpaw has notched up a hat-trick of wins in their most recent encounters, to move from a wafer-thin 6-5 advantage in their head-to-heads to a dominant 9-5 lead. Marin had ridden on the back of a rich vein of form to win both the Super 1000 events in Bangkok in January, before narrowly finishing runners-up to Taiwan's Tai Tzu Ying at the delayed 2020 BWF World Tour grand finals.
Yet, it could have been said that all the odds had stacked up in Sindhu's favour before the Swiss Open final, at the same venue that had been witness to her greatest triumph. For one, Sindhu is two years younger than Marin, and technically at the peak of her powers. For another, she has been mostly injury-free, whereas the Spaniard has returned from a career-threatening knee injury that could have adversely affected one of her biggest assets " her speed of foot.
Again, Marin had been stretched to the limit in her semi-final against the exciting Thai, Pornpawee Chochuwong, who appears all set to take over the mantle of her country's best shuttler from Ratchanok Intanon, the 2013 world champion. Marin, who won the decider at 21-19 after a no-holds-barred battle, could have been expected to be stiff and sore on the day of the finals, while Sindhu had had a relatively serene march to the title round, winning all her four earlier encounters at the St. Jakobshalle in straight games.
Then there should have been the hunger factor. Marin had been getting used to winning a bunch of titles, and boredom could have been expected to creep in while tackling the final of a relatively minor, $140,000 prize money Super 300 tournament. On the other hand, Sindhu had finally entered her first final in 18 months, following her 2019 World Championship triumph in Basel; and should have been slavering at the jaws for a title.
Instead, what happened was an anti-climax to beat all anti-climaxes! After a fairly even initial exchange of hostilities, during the course of which Sindhu appeared to match her rival in speed and court coverage, that incomparable hustler Marin just jammed her foot on the accelerator pedal, and disappeared over the horizon in a cloud of mocking dust.
It was hard to accept the fact that the two had been sparring carefully at 6-all and 8-9, as Marin went into the lemon break at 11-8, and then showed a clean pair of heels to her leaden-footed antagonist.
The Spaniard was in total control of the rallies, dictating exchanges at the net and moving her rival all around the court with a relentless barrage of deep clears, sharp drops and half-smashes. She also covered her relatively weaker backhand baseline corner brilliantly, using the overhead to keep Sindhu guessing. All the while, there were those trademark roof-shaking screams, artfully designed as much for self-encouragement as to intimidate her opponent.
On hindsight, the sequence of events that led to the 35-minute long 21-12, 21-5 defeat should have been anticipated by the game's student who had witnessed the two contrasting semi-final clashes the previous day. Whereas Marin and Chochuwong had engaged in a high-quality war of speedy exchanges with quicksilver movements and enthralling strokeplay, Sindhu and Mia Blichfeldt had fought a much slower paced, mundane battle, with the Dane unable to either displace the lumbering Indian or hustle her into errors.
It appears that, during her two-month sojourn in England late last year, Sindhu concentrated her attention more on strength training, rather than on improving her agility and court movement. The result is that she looks strong and muscular, and is hitting the shuttle harder, but her speed on the court has been compromised, and she is unable to move from midcourt to lunge at the net to pick up tight drops.
Strangely, her overall physical fitness is also not what it was on the eve of the 2019 World Championships, and she seems to lose her breath more frequently during the longer rallies. She has been seen to drag her feet and be guilty of taking more time between rallies than is ordinarily permitted, to the extent that she is being frequently admonished by the chair umpire for time-wasting.
"Sindhu just needs to work out her tactics and strategies better," says national chief coach Vimal Kumar, who oversees coaching at the Dravid Padukone Centre for Excellence in Bangalore. "She was not moving well on Sunday evening, and Carolina totally outpaced her. Sindhu was never under the shuttle to play any stroke properly.
"Sindhu had her best chance of winning the first game and putting pressure on Carolina, since she was playing against the drift and could afford to hit hard, without fearing that the shuttle would go out at the baseline. Also, since the shuttles were on the slower side, Sindhu should have tried to clear more to the back and slowed down the pace, especially when she was playing against the drift. Once she gained momentum, she could have played more aggressively."
Clearly, the key issue, apart from agility, is strategy and tactical planning. After the precipitate departure of South Korean coach, Kim Ji Hyun, in October 2019, there does not seem to be anybody in the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy who is capable of guiding Sindhu on how to switch tactics and strategy in mid-game, if Plan A is not working that day.
There is no clarity on whether that master tactician, Dronacharya Award winning 2001 All England champion Gopichand, has been interesting himself in Sindhu's training and coaching, since he has hardly been seen in the coach's chair at the last few tournaments. If he can take over the duties in Sindhu's corner, he could well guide his ward in the right direction and help her work assiduously in the arduous task of converting Olympic silver into gold.