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PV Sindhu's final frontier: So far, yet so near

VCG

PV Sindhu perhaps knows only too well what the headlines will read on Monday morning. The hackneyed clich├ęs that have shadowed her for the past 24 months since her Olympic silver will resurface. The world will yet again remind her in screaming, bold letters that she's, well, only the silver lining.

That, still, she's not gold standard.

Sindhu won three out of six finals she played in 2017 and now, with her second successive World Championship silver against reigning Olympic champion Carolina Marin, the Indian has now lost all four finals she's competed in this year, also losing at the India Open, the Commonwealth Games and the Thailand Open.

But even as she stepped onto the podium in Nanjing on Sunday, gulping back tears and sharing a brief, nervous laugh with an emotional Marin, it would have been with the knowledge that she'd played some of her best badminton this week.

Billed as a repeat of the Rio Olympic final, it was easy to feel shortchanged at the end of 46 minutes. Marin was hustling Sindhu and India's most successful player at the World Championships couldn't, even with her giant wingspan, reach the lines the 25-year-old Spaniard was hitting.

Ahead of the World Championships, she'd addressed her near-misses and second-best finishes in an unaffected manner and could have been held culpable for not sounding apologetic or ambitious enough. "I know sometimes I have been losing the finals...It doesn't bother me, because the finals is the next best thing to winning," Sindhu had said.

But on court, when the speed of the shuttle leaves you with little time to react, it's hard to feel okay with anything less than putting back whatever is thrown at you. Against Marin, who charges at her opponents like a bull let free at the Pamplona run, where Sindhu lost the battle was in not being able to contain her opponent's pace.

"If you don't do that," says former national champion Aparna Popat, "You don't stand a chance because there's nobody on the circuit as fast as her (Marin) today. When Sindhu tried to play the slower shots, Marin just jumped onto them and hit those crosscourt and downward cross shots on both flanks really well. So if you play slow you allow her to jump on the shots and if you play fast then you're playing her kind of game. So there's no winning with someone like Marin. She can totally suck you into her game."

By the second game, Sindhu looked like she was loathing every minute of the ordeal she was being put through. Her flagging spirit contrasted with the purposeful gait of Marin, who blew into her racket-gripping fingers before every serve and drowned out the cheers of the congregated Chinese multitude with her Sharapova-like shrieks. Sindhu's coach Pullela Gopichand tried to appear hopeful, maintaining steady eye contact and telling her to go for slow drop shots halfway through the second game. Sindhu bit her lower lip, pressed her palm across her sweaty temple, tucked a few errant strands of hair behind her ear and responded with a double nod. She was trailing 11-3 then and knew that nothing was working.

Commentator Morten Frost, a former World No. 3 singles player himself, though, was willing to acquit Sindhu of the dominant 'curse of the final' argument, instead calling attention to the quality of her last three opponents - Nozomi Okuhara, Akane Yamaguchi and Marin. It's a school of thought Aparna is willing to get on board with. "I wouldn't say Sindhu choked at either the Olympics or both Worlds finals. For me, choking would be what she did in the Dubai Superseries finals against Yamaguchi where she had her chances but squandered away points by playing silly shots. It's not that Sindhu played poorly today, it's just that Marin was extraordinary."

Coach Vimal Kumar concurs. "In the first game she was successful in pushing Marin to go for the lines and make mistakes. But somewhere, Sindhu slackened and once the gap in points widened the pressure may have got to her. It doesn't have anything to do with the stage of the finals, I think. It's not fair to say so. For her it's definitely unfortunate and hard to come to terms with but she has to find a way out and we know she will win those big titles one day."

Her Rio final against Marin went the distance, lasting three games and 83 minutes while last year's Worlds final against Okuhara spanned a titanic 110 minutes. This time, coming into the final without dropping a game, it seemed like she'd lost to Marin before one had even realised it. The 21-19, 21-10 final scoreline didn't exactly suggest a contest too close to call. It would, however, be both harsh and convenient to pin it all down to a lack of heart or grit to clear the final hurdle.

"For Sindhu," Aparna offered, "there are a lot of positives to take from here, especially her net game which is giving her those openings and the way she's moving and thinking on court. Maybe to counter someone like Marin, she can add some deception to her strokes. But apart from that her game is looking at its best since Rio. I don't think she needs to put this final behind or forget this happened. She should carry this with her and continue to play the way she has in this tournament."

The Asian Games, which gets underway in less than a fortnight, could be Sindhu's most immediate chance at redemption. India has never won a badminton gold medal at the continental event and the 23-year-old may fancy owning that meaty chunk of history.

For Spain, Marin has been the one to usher in both beginnings and history in the sport. It's only with her successes that her country, with no real pedigree in the sport, has been put on the badminton map. She's a hero back home and is made to feel that way. The Palace of Sports arena in Huelva, the reigning Olympic champion's city of birth, took her name four months after her gold medal in Rio. Christened the Carolina Marin Sports Pavilion, it also hosted one of the biggest continental events, the European Championships in April this year, which she went on to win.

With this gold medal, Marin walks into sporting immortality with three World titles, the highest by any player.

As for Sindhu, she should know that her time too will come.