It's starting to happen again. That PV Sindhu-shaped juggernaut is starting to gather pace, smashing and slashing past opponents.> Just in time for a title run at a marquee tournament too.
Friday brought the first big test of Sindhu's campaign in Tokyo. Her group stage opponents are both ranked outside the top 30 and had never beaten Sindhu in BWF events. Israel's World No 58 Ksenia Polikarpova was dispatched in 28 minutes. Hong Kong's Ngan Yi Cheung, the World No 34, lasted 35 minutes.
Mia Blichfeldt, the World No 12, met her in the last-16 round. She too was shown the exit door without the complication of a three-game encounter.
Akane Yamaguchi, though, was expected to be a different test of character for Sindhu.
The Japanese shuttler, ranked No 5 in the world, has made a name for herself on the circuit by being a relentless retriever, so zealously dedicated to the cause that she doesn't think twice before flinging herself across the court to return a shot. But, in the end on Friday, the breathtaking brutality of Sindhu's racquet was too much for her to handle. After 56 minutes of punch-drunk badminton"the rigours of which, at one point, saw Sindhu dropping to her knees while across the net from her, Yamaguchi was doubled over, hands on knees"the Indian entered the semi-finals of the Tokyo Olympics.
There were down-the-line smashes from Sindhu ferocious enough to be termed assassination attempts. There were defensive blocks with just enough weight in them to waft across the net. There were cross-court drives.
And then there were the rallies.
The first big rally of the match came in the first game with Sindhu trailing 5-6. To draw level, Sindhu made her Japanese opponent run to every corner of the court. And then some more. At the end of the 26-stroke rally, which lasted 33 seconds, Sindhu finally clawed back into the game. From that point on, Sindhu put daylight between the two of them, eventually winning 21-13.
Another critical point of the match came in the second game and involved 54 shots, a rally which continued for 62 seconds. It allowed Sindhu to take a 15-14 lead. She broke a string in her racquet in the next point trying to smash the daylights out of the shuttle.
"I really wanted to get that point. Neither of us relaxed and gave up. It was a crucial point," she said later in the mixed zone of Tokyo's Musashino Forest Sport Plaza. "I came ready to play long rallies. It was not a one-dimensional strategy that I came into the game with. It was important that I maintain my attack, 'cause that's my strong point."
Nothing Yamaguchi was trying was working, at least consistently. She first went after the Indian's backhand by using long lobs. Didn't work. She also tried attacking Sindhu's body.
Sindhu's coach, Park Tae-sang, had been telling journalists in the build-up to the Olympics that they were working on fortifying her defence, motion skills and net training. The shuttler has also spoken about learning new skills and shots.
"You will see some new skill at the Tokyo Olympics from me," she teased. "I worked on every stroke. We got really good time due to this pandemic. I utilised this period very well."
With the score at 14-8 in the second game, Sindhu leapt up and caressed the shuttle across the net while her Japanese opponent waited for a full-blooded smash. It did not arrive. Instead, the shuttle gently flew over the net and fell into Yamaguchi's side of the court. The Japanese shuttler did not see it coming.
Moments later, Yamaguchi was standing on the cusp of forcing a decider. She was leading 20-18 in the second. But Sindhu clawed back, levelling at 20-20, and then sealing the deal at 22-20.
"Today's second game was crucial for me. Even when she was leading I didn't lose hope or was that nervous because I understood that if I was leading 14-8 at one point and then let slip that advantage to let her get to 20-18. The learning from this game was that even though you are leading don't expect that it will finish easily," she said.
In the months coming to Tokyo, the Swiss Open was the only one where Sindhu made it to the final. There were a handful of quarters and semis appearances.
Sindhu's slump coming into an Olympic Games or big-ticket events is not a new.
Going into Rio 2016, Sindhu won just the Macau Open in the BWF's calendar of events in 2015. She started 2016 by winning the Malaysia Masters GP Gold. But then she had a string of quarter-final and semi-final defeats leading up to Rio 2016. In the last tournament before Rio, in June 2016, she lost in straight games to South Korea's Kim Hyo Min at the Australian Open. (Saina Nehwal won that event while Kidambi Srikanth was a semi-finalist).
This is possibly why, as chief badminton coach Pullela Gopichand once told Firstpost, everyone at Rio 2016 was prepared for the Saina Nehwal test, but Sindhu came as an "out-of-syllabus" question.
Even in 2018, when Sindhu won the season-ending BWF World Tour Finals (where she bulldozed through the field, beating Yamaguchi, Tai Tzu Ying, Beiwen Zhang, Ratchanok Intanon and Nozomi Okuhara), she had come on the back of a title-less three-month stretch, where she had not made it to the semis.
That stretch had started after she had conquered silver at the Asian Games right after another silver at the World Championships.
"At the last Olympics, nobody cared about Sindhu. This time around, it's going to be a challenge. She's going to be the main question in the test! People are going to be prepared for her," Gopichand had foretold in November 2019 in an interview with Firstpost.