PV Sindhu vs Japan, an anthology that keeps on giving. Two weeks ago, it was an Akane Yamaguchi parade, with the Indian being reduced to a fleeting footnote. In Saturday's World Tour Finals playoffs, Sindhu summoned her appetite for a final, fed off a visibly jaded Yamaguchi and launched herself into title contention by the thinnest of margins in the final game of an epic that lasted all of 70 minutes, 21-15, 15-21, 21-19.
Breaching the semi-final appeared to be a mini-goal Sindhu had set herself and glad to have finally ticked off. Her first on Tour since the All England Open in March.
"Finally I crossed the hurdle...the last two tournaments I lost in the semifinals," Sindhu told BWF after the match, "Today I was prepared for a long match. Every time I play against her (Yamaguchi) I know it's going to be long, there are no easy matches. Every point mattered a lot until the last minute."
Midway through the post-match interview, coach Park Tae Sang gently tapped her shoulder from behind and removed the bright blue kitbag straps off her shoulders to unburden her. Sindhu, who now plays An Seyoung in Sunday's final, broke into a hearty laugh and offered that he'd been "taking very good care" of her.
The rallies were brief in the opening game with Sindhu employing downward shots and working the diagonal, her whiplash crosscourt returns landing on the deep forehand corner of the world No 3 more often than not. Yamaguchi missed the lines, struggled with the length of her returns, threw her head back in resigned despair, shut her eyes and stared at her feet. Her sinews appeared to be resisting her mind's commands.
The second game, going by the tenor of the first, would have been assumed to be regulation for Sindhu. Yamaguchi however, wanted a fight. She returned with punch clears, straight smashes and injected pace and disguise to the exchanges, like the drop shot she delicately placed on the forecourt of Sindhu's backhand side to go up 7-6.
The Japanese star conjured moments of genius through the second and third games, like swerving her torso while crouched, away from the path of an incoming body smash for a volley return; tight spinning net shots to wrench errors out of Sindhu. Perhaps the most gorgeous of them all came late on - with Yamaguchi camouflaging a drop-shot as a full-throttle power smash and depositing it on Sindhu's forehand side to take the lead at 19-18 in the decider. All this from being down 5-12 earlier in the third game.
Though Sindhu was flummoxed in a couple of net skirmishes towards the end, she put up a dogged fight in the front court and refused to cede ground. Her courage saw her through. "After I won the first game, I played the same game but made some unforced errors. Even though I was leading 11-5 she came back and took an 18-17 lead. I just put my nerves down and made sure it was not over until the last minute so I fought back, I'm happy I won this match."
An, whom Sindhu will face off for the title, is a difficult hurdle. The Korean teen has been in imperious touch, coming off two title wins over the last two weeks. She holds a 2-0 lead in match-ups against the Indian, and is already being counted among the favorites for the World Championships in a week's time. The World Tour Finals this year, due to the nature of the calendar isn't as high profile as it is traditionally. A bunch of top names are missing. "It's not over," Sindhu says, "I'm not fully satisfied, I want to win tomorrow and come back with a medal. Against An, it's going to be a tough game."