The dour medal-counters of Indian sport – those who get caught up in suffixes to relate to PV Sindhu will never understand how valuable she is to sport’s most important metric: attracting daily attention. Taking them in and holding them steady in the here and now. Sindhu was made for the little screen.
Her game, the bouts that reach a critical mass of pleasure before exploding into pyrotechnics, and the way an opponent is snared into a battle wholly of her design, is the stuff of sporting spectacle that Olympic sports seek in the years between Games. Badminton, with its bizarre broadcast schedule that has fans all over the world clamouring for live streams of early rounds, gets lucky when great players appear on television. Sindhu’s ability to add a spark of natural theatrics to each battle, putting her among the most prominent of pivots, the most happening role at any event, has stayed constant in the ten years since her first major medal – bronze at the 2013 World Championships.
The turning point in Sindhu’s quarterfinal match against Chinese left-hander He Bingjiao at the Badminton Asian Championship in Manila, which she won 21-9, 13-21, and 21-19, occurred at 16-14 in the decider. There’s some debate regarding whether the score was indeed 16-15, as the Chinese team that was down stated. But the build-up to it was as spectacular.
Because of the drift, the shuttles in Manila shoot from one side of the court, making control extremely difficult. In the first set, Sindhu was on the more controllable side, winning 21-9. Bingjiao pulled away from the top side at 10-10 through the second and sprinted to take the next 21-13. The decider is even-stevens, also known as Sindhu territory.
Sindhu reached 11-5 at the change of ends, following a clear strategy of maintaining a substantial cushioning advantage while remaining on the pleasant side. At one point, she was 11-2. Sindhu appeared destined to win Match-22 against the Chinese, whom she thrashed for a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics after losing out on a gold medal final. Then there was the catch.
The duo kept the chair umpire busy with challenges as the shuttle scampered around the tramlines like a tipsy trundler at 3-2 early in the game.
Sindhu’s round-the-head reverse-angled dippers were netting her points in courtcraft, while the smash put Bingjiao’s body defence to the test. Sindhu reached 16-9, comfortably on her way to the semis, as the Chinese smacked one capriciously into the walls and her lifts soared out.
To be clear, this was a low-quality shot-making competition, with mistakes taking the lead in terms of points.
Bingjiao opted for the forecourt low dive at the web to cause Sindhu to bend on the left and free up the correct half of the court, realising she wanted to stop Sindhu’s movement. The Chinese won, 16-13, thanks to their improvisations. Sindhu’s early advantage was being eroded, and it’s not uncommon for opponents to gain momentum from here. The bus was parked by Sindhu.
Then something strange occurred. Bingjiao’s floating return landed on the sideline at the end of a 13-shot rally, bringing her within 2 points of Sindhu’s total. Because the shuttle plummeted within inches of her, the challenge was more of a water-sipper break than something with conviction. The review was favourable to the Chinese player.
At the start of that comeback, another women’s singles quarterfinal was 4-1 on the neighbouring court. In Sindhu’s court, a variety of scorelines flashed on the board as she called for a review of Hawkeye’s ruling and summoned players. The misunderstanding lasted long enough that the declared score, as well as the screen scores, were altered, with two outside officials going onto the court to clear things out.
Both players took turns declaring their views of the score to the chair umpire as she was reeling out the score a few seconds later. The Chinese stated that the score was 16-15 and appeared to believe that a quick point was played following the review. Sindhu argued it was 16-14, which the umpire eventually agreed with.
Too close to be safe
The other quarterfinal had gone to 14-4 from 4-1 at this point, and Bingjiao did indeed capture the next point with a cross-net interception that Sindhu threw into the web.
After Bingjiao’s rush of six straight points, and a not-so-straight panning out of events, it was suddenly a 1-point game. Following that, both players made several blunders as a result of the scoreboard incident. Sindhu, though, showed all kinds of tenacity online to force it to 20-17 and three match points. Bingjiao was left crawling in the card game three times during the match, hoping to succeed in the shuttle as Sindhu’s drops baffled her.
After a 24-shot rally, the shuttle sought to be the centre of attention, touching the very top of the tape, threatening to tip over, but dropping to the same side cheekily to bring the Chinese to 20-18. Another Sindhu blunder took the score to 20-19 before the Chinese pulled a throwing lift limp from the web and a relieved Sindhu dropped to the ground.
On Saturday, there is still a semifinal match against Akane Yamaguchi. One could be forgiven for assuming that Friday was the big finale.