A lot of badminton records have crumbled in the space of 24 hours. India have broken new ground. After 36 years without an individual medal in the sport at the Asian Games, it was Saina Nehwal, again, who broke the hoodoo for India. In the process, she also became the country’s first ever woman to win a medal in badminton at the Asiad.
It matters little as she was followed by PV Sindhu — not in a matter of years, but in a matter of hours this time — as India doubled up. What matters most though is that Sindhu not only took that new ground, but raised it further. She is now a finalist in the women’s singles event at the Asian Games — the first Indian, male or female, to have ever gotten this far in the history of the competition.
The duo’s semifinals played out to contrasting tunes, as did their quarterfinals. In the quarters, Saina was the underdog against Ratchanok Intanon, the Thai shuttler widely regarded as one of the most graceful in the modern game. Sindhu was up against another Thai, Nitchaon Jindapol. The two quarters, in themselves, were loaded with history. Thailand had never won an individual medal in badminton at the Asian Games. The Indians, though, were not about to be kind.
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In the first of the Indo-Thai quarters, Saina was measured in her own non-expressive, non-expansive way. She was down 3-7, and then 11-16, in the first game when the on-air commentators dug into their encyclopedias of old sporting cliches — one of them drilling out the ‘so near, yet so far’ trope that must make modern listeners flinch.
Magnanimously then, Intanon opened the door for Saina to make a comeback, smacking two gettable drop shots into the net. The Indian smelt blood, and she made meal. One medal done.
Sindhu, in complete contrast, took little time to dispatch Jindapol in the first game, and then decided to do what Intanon did and gave her Thai opponent some room to comeback. Absurdly enough, Jindapol didn’t take the chance. Two medals done.
Which brought us to the semifinals on August 27, and again the duo played in sharp contrast, but in keeping with the kind of persons they are. All the stereotypes about loud North Indians and stoic south Indians become useless around these two.
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Saina — technically the North Indian, though far be it to us who use such labels — is the calmer, silent, exacting type. Not prone to emotion even after great points, when she pumps her fist it is almost with a tinge of regret. When she is down, she climbs up, prefers it almost to the simpler pleasure of starting on top.
In the semifinal, she stayed with Tai Tzu-Ying through the course of the two games, matching her point for point, and shot for shot, till finally — in both games — the young Chinese Taipei genius strolled away at exactly the right time in the game (Tai won 21-17, 21-14).
Saina’s immediate reaction to the defeat was magnanimous, as always.
“Tai was more charged up, especially after losing the World Championship,” she said, in the scrum outside the arena. Watching the game, a colleague remarked that Tai seemed to have that extra second to play her shots, at all time, like Lin Dan, he said. The comparison isn’t far fetched, even if her achievements, right now, are far below the requirement for it.
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Modern women badminton’s top four is not much of a turntable anymore. At the top of the heap (regardless of rankings) is Carolina Marin, the Spaniard capable on the big stage of bringing out the hits, but also not interested perhaps, in sustaining those hits through the year. Tzu-Ying then, is the best woman player in the world. She has a winning record against every player in the top 10, and yet, she has no medals to show for it. Appropriately then, she will be up against Sindhu in the final of the Asian Games.
Sindhu’s semifinal was, by most predictions, going to be a long drawn out, all action affair. This was the World No. 2 Akane Yamaguchi vs the World number 3, Sindhu. And it proved to be a higher quality game than the first one. In three games — each of which lasted exactly 22 minutes — Sindhu raged and revelled. She pumped her fist and she dropped her head. She seemed to to be breezing away, before she seemed to be slipping away. Her match — all her matches perhaps — are a lesson in emotional narrative construction. High, low, high, low, high.
In the third game, so was her game. Sensing that Yamaguchi was troubled by a sore shoulder, she forced the diminutive Japanese constantly to the back court, playing overhead shots. Why that wasn’t the plan from the first moment, few will tell. Eventually, she got the win (, guaranteeing herself, forever, a slice of history. THE FIRST INDIA WOMAN TO GET TO THE FINAL OF THE ASIAN GAMES.
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In the post-match scrum, Sindhu said, “Leading doesn’t matter, because that lead isn’t a guarantee. It can all change in a matter of moments, and perhaps, when you have the lead, you have to concentrate more.” Strong words, because Sindhu after all is fresh from that loss to Marin at the World Championships, where she dropped a first game lead that crucially turned the tide of the match.
It was pointed out to her that despite having a losing record to Tai, she has beaten the Chinese Taipei girl where it mattered — in the round of 16 at the Rio Olympics. Sindhu smiled a wry smile, before gently giving the correct answer about the now and not the past, and looking forward to the final on August 28.
It would be a fifth final for Sindhu this year, and a chance to register a first tournament win this calendar year. Demons are meant to be banished. Hoodoos to be broken. Saina and Sindhu have already broken two in two days. If Carolina Marin is to be believed, then this one too will fall.