Heartbreak in Glasgow

India’s most rewarding campaign in the championship ended with a heartbreak for the country’s die-hard sports fans. The epic ladies final, where each of the three games was decided by the narrowest of margins, ended with P. V. Sindhu failing to reach the shuttle on the forecourt.

Gold medal winner, Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara (second from right), is flanked by India’s P. V. Sindhu (right) and the two bronze medal winners, Saina Nehwal and Chen Yufei (extreme left).   -  BWF/Badminton Photo

For Indian badminton lovers, two ladies singles medals from an edition of the World Championship was a realistic expectation. After all, P. V. Sindhu and Saina Nehwal possess the quality to beat the field.

Sindhu, seeded four, was keen to add to the bronze medals collected from the 2013 and 2014 editions, while the 12th-seeded Saina, finalist to Carolina Marin in 2015 (the World Championship is not held in Olympic years) was equally eager to tell the world that she still had enough fire left in her.

As a result of their resolve and resilience, Sindhu and Saina were in the semifinals and with it, were assured of a medal. They were eyeing for a place in the final and that meant an all-India clash for the World title was very much possible.

However, Japan’s eventual winner Nozomi Okuhara was destined for glory and gold. The hard-working returning-machine made it past the two Indian medallists and left them far from happy.

Clearly, India’s most rewarding campaign in the championship ended with a heartbreak for the country’s die-hard sports fans. The epic ladies final, where each of the three games was decided by the narrowest of margins, ended with Sindhu failing to reach the shuttle on the forecourt.

The score-line of 21-19, 20-22, 22-20 in 110 minutes — the longest final to decide the ladies world title and the second longest ladies match ever — made Okuhara the first Japanese winner of the title. This came before Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen became another first time winner of the evening by claiming the men’s singles title. He stopped Chinese legend Lin Dan’s search for a sixth title in seven final appearances with a 22-20, 21-16 victory after saving a game-point at 19-20 in the first game.

Coming back to the ladies final, what is likely to rankle Sindhu for a long time is, the fact that she led 19-17 in the decider and could manage to win just one point off the last six played.

Once Sindhu crossed over, leading 11-9 at the mid-game interval, the only time a player led by two points was when Sindhu found herself two points away from the gold medal.

But the gritty Japanese, looking in better physical shape than Sindhu in the closing moments of this 110-minute marathon, moved to match-point after the Indian twice found the net from close.

At this stage, Okuhara misjudged a return that drifted in and gave Sindhu a life-line. At 20-20, it was anybody’s match. Two long rallies followed and ended with Sindhu failing to return from the forecourt.

Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen became another first time winner when he stopped Chinese legend Lin Dan’s search for a sixth title in seven final appearances with a 22-20, 21-16 victory.   -  AP

Ironically, Sindhu’s best finish in three-medal winning performances at the World Championship, sadly, left her shattered. Indeed, there was no joy in winning the silver medal. The 2016 Olympic silver-medallist had come for gold, but saw it slip away to a fitter performer.

In Sindhu’s words, “It was anybody’s game. It’s upsetting to lose, but you can’t say anything at the end of such a match. It was never over for both sides. The third game went to 20-all. Every point was tough and we were both not letting go. Obviously, anybody would aim for gold because this is the final of the World Championships, but that last moment changed everything.”

No doubt, Sindhu had every reason to be disappointed. But Okuhara’s journey this week clearly made her a well-deserved winner of the World title.

Consider this: Okuhara knocked out two former World No. 1s before taking on Sindhu. The Japanese, seeded 7, took out the reigning Olympic and World champion Carolina Marin in the quarterfinals and then accounted for Saina, the 2015 runner-up, from being a game down!

Saina, struggling for the better part of the year, knew what this event meant and performed way above her seeding.

Saina’s victory over second-seeded Korean Sung Ji Hyun was indeed the high point of her campaign. Given the difference in their seeding, it should have been labelled as a ‘surprise’ result. But none saw it as a big upset because this was only a continuation of Saina’s domination of the Korean, who is considered the most consistent performer in ladies badminton.

For the record, Saina’s 21-19, 21-15 triumph was her eighth in 10 encounters and second successive straight-game win of the year over Sung.

Up next was local favourite Kirsty Gilmour who reached the last-eight stage by getting past rising Chinese star He Bingjiao, seeded 6. Kirsty brought to the fore Saina’s concerns about fitness, especially in the third game.

Next day, Saina faced Okuhara in the first session of the day, which meant the winner of this semifinal enjoyed at least seven hours of more rest compared to the other finalist before the title clash.

Saina won the first game and moved within four points of a place in the final at 17-17 in the second. But Okuhara fought right back to claim the next four points and then raced away with the decider. Okuhara’s 12-21, 21-17, 21-19 victory was only her second over Saina in eight meetings but came at a time when she wanted it the most.

Later, Saina sounded pragmatic about her campaign. “I am happy to get to the semifinals, but naturally disappointed to lose after being a game up. I gave it my best and I am pleased with that. She started to win the long rallies after the first game and, in the third game, she was everywhere and I was confused about what shot to play. She was getting back everything.”

Among the men, K. Srikanth and B. Sai Praneeth could not punch above their weight and ended up playing to their seedings. Facing World No. 1 Son Won Ho in the quarterfinals, eighth seed Srikanth was looking to score a third straight victory, following his two wins in six days over his rival in June this year. But the Korean appeared far better prepared on this day as he carved out a 21-14, 21-18 victory, after stalling a brave rally by the Indian in the second game.

The previous day, Praneeth fell to Chou Tien Chen, the sixth seed from Chinese Taipei. It was a rather tame surrender by Sai after winning the first game at 21-19. Chou took the next two at 21-10, 21-12 to close out the contest in 61 minutes.

Ajay Jayaram ran into defending champion Chen Long and lost 11-21, 10-21 in the pre-quarterfinals after England’s Rajiv Ouseph ended Sameer Verma’s campaign 22-20, 21-9 in the second round.

Similarly, the two other Indian ladies in singles, Tanvi Lad and Rituparna Das, too, made expected exits in the earlier rounds. The 92nd-ranked Tanvi, after beating higher-placed Chole Birch, bowed out to second seed Sung Ji Hyun 21-9, 21-19.

Much like Tanvi, Rituparna, too, lost to one of Saina’s victims, Kirsty Gilmour 16-21, 13-21, after having eased into the second round when her first-round opponent, Finland’s Airi Mikkela, retired, down 0-2 in the opening minute.