Feb 5, 2018
It is New Delhi, not Rio, Glasgow or Dubai. Or so PV Sindhu would have thought going into the final. Whatever happened in those finals would not happen to her on home turf. But 69 minutes later, the familiar script returned to haunt her. Not many in India would have heard of Beiwen Zhang, but the Chinese-American will now forever be known as the player who dethroned Sindhu in the India Open final, proving that the virus has moved from South America, Europe and the Middle East to infiltrate the subcontinent.
The title clash at the Siri Fort Sports Stadium did not reach the heights of Sindhu’s final defeats in the World Championships and the Super Series Finals. But in a departure from the previous cliff-hangers, the Indian shuttler actually held a match point before going down 21-18, 11-21, 22-20.
At 20-19 in the decider, Sindhu’s net shot did not cross the net. A smash on the next point and a Sindhu return into the tramlines brought Zhang into the big league. One would never know how much the late semi-final against Ratchanok Intanon, which finished at nearly 11 pm on Saturday night, had a bearing on the match. Zhang had finished her match a good five hours earlier. There was no way of knowing as, following in the footsteps of Saina Nehwal – who also lost to Zhang in the quarterfinals – Sindhu too did not turn up for the customary post-match press conference.
Zhang is an interesting aberration in the institutionalised world of top badminton. While shuttlers from other major powers have the support of their federations and coaching and support staff, the World No. 11 chooses to do it alone. Representing a country without much of a badminton culture – though she still holds a Singapore passport — she did not have a coach till very recently, though he cannot travel to tournaments with her as she can’t afford it. She had to hire a local physiotherapist during the tournament.
It was quite a contrast in between games and points, and at the mid-game breaks, to see head coach Gopichand & Co. constantly talking, encouraging and advising Sindhu, while Zhang would be in position to play much before the umpire called time. “I’m used to it. It has been seven years since I had a coach,” the 27-year-old said after “the best moment” of her career.
It was the fourth meeting between the two players, with Sindhu winning two of the previous three. Zhang, though, had won their most recent clash, at the 2017 Indonesia Open. All their matches have gone the distance, but the home fans that trooped into the venue would scarcely have expected that the favourite would come second best.
If anybody was under the impression that the match would be little more than a celebration of Sindhu’s title defence, they were corrected very early into the contest. Zhang took a 3-0 lead and though Sindhu equalised, the two players kept exchanging leads before Sindhu went into the mid-game break 11-9 ahead. The Indian was having difficulty dealing with her opponent’s down-the-line smash, while Sindhu was doing her best trying to force the Liaoning native to hit shots from round her head.
The defending champion, who was in irresistible form against Ratchanok, soon began feeling the pressure. So did the crowd, and the chants of “Sindhu, Sindhu” turned to “Come on, Sindhu!” as the home favourite was forced into uncharacteristic errors by Zhang’s dogged defence.
Sindhu’s default tactic against top opponents is to increase the pace of the rallies, but the fifth seed more than held her own and even took the initiative whenever she had the slightest opportunity. “Normally, I’m more of a defensive player. But today, I attacked a lot and hit the smash often,” Zhang said.
When Sindhu decided to cover for the straight smash, her opponent found the gap with a round-the-head crosscourt smash at 15-15 in the opener. The Indian’s predicament could be judged from the fact that Zhang’s last four points in the tight first game came via Sindhu’s errors.
The top seed was expected to bounce back after the setback, and she did exactly that, racing to an 8-2, and then 11-4 lead. Sindhu was the aggressor most of the time and controlled the tempo of the rallies. The deficit soon became too much for Zhang.
But if anyone had thought that the Las Vegas resident would just fade away, they were wrong. Benefitting from a net cord, Zhang won six points in a row to take a 9-4 lead and though Sindhu reduced the arrears, the Indian changed sides in the decider with a two-point deficit.
Thereafter, it was a fight for every point. Neither player had more than a one-point lead till Zhang edged ahead 17-15, 18-16 and 19-17. Sindhu, though, would not go away and three consecutive points took her to the brink of a second successive title at home.
That is where the script took a now-familiar turn. “She (Sindhu) had more pressure. I had nothing to lose and told myself not to take any pressure,” Zhang said. “When she had match point, I just tried to think clearly.”
The free-spirited shuttler has been to India before, but this has been her best experience by far. “I played in the Premier Badminton League and did not win any match,” she said. “This, however, more than makes up for that.”
Shi back in winners’ circle
He has been considered a Chinese prodigy who will take on the mantle from Lin Dan and Chen Long. Gold medals at the Youth Olympics and Junior World Championships attest to his talent, but Shi Yuqi had gone a full year without a title.
That’s why there was relief mixed with joy when the 21-year-old defeated Chinese Taipei’s Chou Tien Chen 21-18, 21-14 in the India Open final on Sunday. Shi lost last year’s All England final to Lee Chong Wei, but was not to be denied here.
World No. 7 Chou, who lost last year’s title clash to Viktor Axelsen, was in early control of the match. At 17-14, he was favourite to take the first game, but Shi grabbed seven of the last eight points to edge ahead.
The 2016 French Open champion never looked back and was in control of proceedings thereafter. The Chinese shuttler was more aggressive and used his smash to good effect. “I beat Chou at the Dubai Super Series Finals last year, and that gave me confidence. I think Chou tensed up at the crucial stage while I was relaxed. I had not won a tournament for a long time, but now I have won one and want more,” Shi said.
The 28-year-old Chen said his opponent had more energy in his legs. “He was more focused and I needed more variety in my game. He is also a lot younger than me,” he said.