If PV Sindhu ever needed a sign that 2018 was going to be her year at the World Championships, she definitely got one on Saturday, during her 21-16, 24-22 semifinal win over Akane Yamaguchi in Nanjing. It came off the backhand of Yamaguchi, who was serving for the second game at 21-20.
The word 'bizarre' doesn't quite do justice to what Yamaguchi did next. The Japanese World No. 2 flicked a backhand serve to the middle of the other half of the court from where Sindhu was, almost as if Yamaguchi was serving to a phantom player on the other side of the court from Sindhu. That, perhaps, is the most logical explanation for Yamaguchi's brain fade. For, in all seriousness, who would want to have anything to do with PV Sindhu on a badminton court at that moment.
Sindhu had been trailing in the second game, just as she had been in the first, which the Indian won after a fighback that included a flurry of eight consecutive points. Sindhu did the same in the second game, winning eight straight points to move from 19-12 down to serving for the match at 20-19.
The notion of giving up, and conserving her energy for what seemed like an inevitable third game, never seems to have even crossed her mind. Sindhu said so after the match. "When I was down, I kept thinking to myself, 'why can't I do it?' I had come prepared for a long match. I will fight for each point," she said after her win. That is easier said than done, though, as Sindhu admitted. "You have to stay consistent and focused. You have to keep your mind on each shot instead of just giving the point away," she said.
Staying in the fight, when the easiest thing would be to turn tail and run, is a Sindhu trademark. At times, that determination hasn't been enough. Over the past couple of years, losing the critical points in high-stakes matches has been a bogey she's struggled to shake off. The three that doubters point to were the loss to Nozomi Okuhara in the final of last year's World Championships, against Yamaguchi at the year-ending Superseries Finals and to Carolina Marin in the final of the Rio Olympics.
Having beaten Okuhara in the quarterfinals and Yamaguchi in the semifinals, Sindhu could decisively wipe that slate clean on Sunday by beating Carolina Marin in the final, a result few might now be willing to bet against.
"Both Okuhara and Yamaguchi are very good retrievers and Yamaguchi has a very strong attack too. To be able to beat them consecutively is no small achievement. In terms of her mental resolve, Sindhu is clearly playing at a different level right now. She's a lot more patient now but she's also varying the pace at which she is hitting and that's posing a lot of questions," says former national coach Vimal Kumar.
"When I was down, I kept thinking to myself, 'why can't I do it?' I had come prepared for a long match. I will fight for each point" Sindhu
The fact that she's had a month to train for the World Championships has clearly helped, too. "(That) she wasn't doing very well at the BWF World Tour (She hadn't won a single title this year) suggests she was probably using those events as preparation for the big events at the World Championships and Asian Games. She's had a month in which to work on her fitness before the World Championships and that is clearly showing," says former national champion Arvind Bhat.
That self-belief in her fitness has meant she can stay in the contest against grinding opponents like Okuhara and Yamaguchi. "She's always had self-belief but now she has the confidence that she can stay in the big rallies against these players. Sindhu never seemed out even after a long rally. More often than not, she won the next point too. For an opponent, that can be demoralising," says Bhat.
Expect more of the same in Sunday's final against Marin. The Spaniard has had an average year (She was 16-6 at the start of the month) so far but has seemingly found her mojo at the World Championships. With her relentless aggression the left hander will pose a different sort of challenge. But it's one Sindhu is confident of overcoming. "We have played together a lot and I know her game. The last time we played in a final, she won the match but hopefully I get a gold this time," Sindhu says.