The Okuhara Riddle
Like most superheroes, badminton star PV Sindhu has a nemesis – Japanese Nozomi Okuhara, who has compelled the Indian to battle for every point, struggle for every game and often introspect upon the fine lines separating victory and defeat.
India's golden girl, Olympic silver-medalist and harbinger of many dreams, PV Sindhu, has begun spearheading the country's challenge at the 2018 BWF Championships with her eyes set on the gold and her focus resilient on getting the better of her Japanese nemesis Nozomi Okuhara, the defending champion. Sindhu has managed a comfortable ride in the tournament, as she registered an imposing victory on Indonesia's Fitriani in the second round; after receiving a bye in the first round and winning 21-10, 21-18 over former world no. 2 Ji Hyun Sung of South Korea in the third round. All the while, Sindhu brought back to life the exciting memories of her past encounters with the formidable Okuhara, who was waiting for an encounter with the Indian in the quarter-final.
The last time India's premier shuttler, PV Sindhu, faced Japan's Nozomi Okuhara in the prestigious BWF World Championships was in Glasgow, almost a year ago, during the summit clash of the competition which ultimately witnessed the Hyderabad girl ending up on the losing side. In what was considered as one of the greatest shuttle battles of all times, and the longest match of the tournament clocking 110-minutes, further embellished with a backbreaking 73-stroke rally in between, the current world no. 6 rendered heartaches to millions of Indian badminton enthusiasts by triumphing 21-19, 20-22, 22-20 over India's hope and becoming the first Japanese woman to win this most coveted prize in world Badminton. As far as Sindhu is concerned, that silver medal in Glasgow was the result of four years of displaying consistent and sublime performances that had earlier won her two World Championship bronze medals in 2013 and 2014 along with the 2016 Olympic Games silver. But, in the past one year, title victories have been drying out for her. Heading into the 2018 World Championships ranked as world no. 3, she had gone through the previous year marked with a series of ups and downs. This gradually resulted in the dubbing of her image as a perennial runner-up, after she suffered a stream of losses beginning from the 2017 edition of the World Championships, only winning the Korea Open in the same year.
In a long tournament as the World Championship, it was always going to be a tough draw in the 2018 edition at the top. With the likes of heavy-hitters as Okuhara, Akane Yamaguchi, Tai Tzu Ying there were seemingly no clear favourites to win the competition. Having confronted the Japanese for the first time in 2012 at the Badminton Asia U-19 Championships wherein she defeated her 18-21, 21-17, 22-20 in the finale, the on-court rivalry between the two has evidently produced some scintillating encounters with Sindhu enjoying a tender 6-5 lead over Okuhara in their head-to-heads, after this 2018 World Championship quarter-final clash. Though Sindhu won this time by straight sets, the match was anything but a cakewalk. Each match they play against one another is filthy competitive, challenging and long, culminating into a hair-raising experience for the onlookers.
As their physical features are a world apart from one another, there seems to be at least one thing in common between them – 'the never say die attitude'. Battling for almost every point from the very start of the game, there is no doubt that Sindhu and Okuhara are two players of stark contrast. With PV Sindhu standing at 180 cm, she is marked by a towering presence dominating the space on her half of the court. Her aggressive style of play comprises of killer smashes and an ability to hit the lines which, when combined with the lofty jumps she makes, turns the shuttlecock into a metaphorical fireball. On the other hand, the diminutive Japanese Okuhara is only 155 cm and has a gritty defensive style with her low centre of gravity allowing her to go low on all sides and backtracking with speed and flexibility. Unlike her peer, she likes to remain invisible until the shuttle drops into the empty space and, in no time, she's there. Okuhara had dominated their first meetings as adults, namely in the Hong Kong Open in 2014, the Malaysia Masters in 2015 and the Asia Team Championships 2016 in Hyderabad. A knee-injury caused the pint-sized Japanese to miss most of the 2013 season but she came back stronger clinching major titles like the Dubai World Super Series Finals (2015), the All England Open (2016) and Olympic Bronze (2016). Sindhu then rose back by bagging the victory in the semis of the Rio Olympics in August 2016. Only once in Rio has the clash between the two not extended to three games.
Though they may have completely different styles of play, almost all of Sindhu's opponents in most Championships have an identical streak – they are all retrievers with exceptional deceptive strokes. This is where PV Sindhu stands out with her aggressive and attacking style of play.