TOKYO: You can hear a pin drop inside the badminton arena at the Musashino Forest Plaza. Because there are no crowds, you can also hear two players breathing. Extremely fast. Both of them are down. The rally they have played is 62 seconds long. The lactic acid in their muscles is making both of them grimace. The umpire shows some sympathy and allows both of them an unscheduled water and towel break.
Akane Yamaguchi, who wins the point with a smash to PV Sindhu’s backhand, senses an opportunity. It’s the first time she has sensed any opportunity Friday. She has won six of the last seven points, it’s the kind of run players usually use as a platform to win games, and matches.
The Japanese, nicknamed the Energiser Bunny because of her endurance capacities, forages on moments like this. Sindhu, who is feeling the pace for the first time in the match, loses her iron-like grip on the match. Five minutes before that 54-shot rally, Sindhu is seven points away from a second successive semifinal at the Olympics. A few minutes after that rally, Yamaguchi is one point away from forcing the third game.
The next five minutes is the perfect example of why Sindhu has become this big-game monster, an all-conquering mamba mentality that has helped her make the big stages her playground.
From 18-20, she saves both game points with two smashes after moving Yamaguchi around the court like she’s a master puppeteer. Now, strictly speaking, the Japanese doesn’t mind moving around, she is born to play that way. But she doesn’t like being on the receiving end of Sindhu’s punishing smashes. 18-20 becomes 21-20 just like that, thanks to her prowess in moving the bird to the front and back court before moving in for the kill. The 1-2 at 19-20 is a particular highlight. The match point is academic because this is a different Sindhu.
There was a time when she was considered a bit fragile on the big occasions. Not anymore. She is an absolute beast and the way she goes about monstering her opponents in big matches is almost mean. On commentary, Gill Clark says this is the form that took her to Worlds gold in Basel in 2019. Almost two years removed from Basel, the 26-year-old, if anything, looks even more assured. She has improved her net play — on Friday, she engaged and won a lot of points with her net play — and is moving a lot better. If she came into the limelight with an ‘imma smash everything’ recklessness, she is now more calculative, somehow even more dangerous.
She will have to be that on Saturday. Standing on the other side of the green canvas is Tai Tzu-Ying, her greatest nemesis. The Chinese Taipei, one of the greatest women’s players of all time, leads the head-to-head count 5-13 (to be fair almost everybody in the women’s game has a negative head-to-head record against her). She is a magician with her flicks, variations and drops. Playing her is akin to playing the sport while trying to dance on ice without proper footwear. Even as you preparing to move in one direction, she diverts the bird in another direction.