She was up against the World No. 2 and two-time Olympic medalist, but PV Sindhu played the match of her life to enter the semifinal of the women's singles event here. If Sindhu repeats her masterclass she put up in the 22-20, 21-19 win against Wang Yihan, a Gold is not too above her at Rio.
PV Sindhu has always been one of those “Big-Occasion players” - the ones who are 'fine' all year long, but rise to the occasion when the biggest of the big stages comes beckoning. She won her first World Championship medal when she was just 17 and then followed up with another when she was 18. Today was something even bigger – India's chief hope in the event, Saina Nehwal, had crashed and burned, and all hopes had suddenly been shifted on to the 21-year old's shoulders. If that was not enough, she was up against the World No. 2 and 2012 Olympics Silver medalist Wang Yihan, who also had a 4-2 head-to-head record against Sindhu. But, the Chinese was not taking her too easily – Yihan had come over and meticulously studied the Indian's quarterfinal win yesterday.
The match started on expected notes. Both stuck to their strengths – Yihan sent down attack after attack, and Sindhu held the lines with her solid defence. But, Yihan was at her attacking best in these opening exchanges, pushing and probing with such ferocity, and soon, Sindhu was down 0-3.
Sindhu pulled back, and at 4-5, put up her best defensive display until then - left, right. left, right. She was not even moving much but her reach had carried her all through the court, and Yihan finally gave up and dumped it into the net. 5-5.
Sindhu had been very good on the defence, but Yihan was wearing her down. It was Yihan who went into the break with a 3-point lead at 11-8.
But Sindhu caught up with her soon, and at 13-13, put up another masterclass in defence - how she returned that smash from Yihan was inexplicable – Yihan's drive was set for a winner into Sindhu's backhand corner, but she twisted and reached behind and sent it back, and Yihan, who just did not expect it, missed it.
Until then, Sindhu had defended all she could, but she was not attacking when the opportunity arrived. To win, she had to take those attacking moments early on in the rally, or they were never going to arrive against the World No. 2.
And take she did.
At 13-14, she set Yihan up and let loose a stunning body smash to draw par, and soon, for the first time in the match, she was suddenly ahead at 15-14. Yihan did not give up so easily, and took the next two to go up 17-15. But, Sindhu kept up her new-found attacking edge and smashed her way through Yihan's defence to go up 19-18.
Having earned the lead, Sindhu went back to her strength and started defending waiting for Yihan to make the errors. And Yihan blinked first - she dumped her return into the net, and Sindhu had 2 set points.
Yihan managed to save both, but an error on the next gave Sindhu her third set point at 21-20. And, Yihan sent the next one just wide, and Sindhu had set 1.
The loss was demoralizing, at the least, for the World No. 2, and it showed in the very beginning of set 2. The Chinese made multiple errors, and Sindhu kept taking the gifts that came her way.
Soon, Sindhu was up 8-3 as errors were coming thick and fast from Yihan's racket. She staged a minor comeback to reach 10-8, but Sindhu won the next point to go into the break at 11-8. The score was the same as the score at break in the first set – but the tables had been exactly reversed and Sindhu looked unstoppable by now.
Yihan closed in again, but on her serve at 12-14, Sindhu advanced to the net, and ended it even before the point began with an explosive smash. Clenched fists, and a huge cry from Sindhu, and the huge Indian crowd roared back its approval.
Yihan's downward spiral of mistakes continued as Sindhu reached 18-13, but the Chinese suddenly found a new gear. Out of nowhere, she rallied six straight points to surge ahead into the lead at 18-19. Sindhu was under pressure suddenly, but she responded in style pouncing on Yihan's serve to once again nip her challenge early. Another lovely smash, and Sindhu had match point before Yihan missed a drop to give her that final point. PV Sindhu had done the unthinkable and defeated the Olympic medalist.
It was one of the finest games of women's badminton in recent times, at least, especially in the first set. Wang Yihan had not done much wrong in that set, but had made the mistake of catching PV Sindhu on her finest day. Sindhu has a relatively easier semi-final draw against Nozomi Okuhara of Japan, having avoided both defending champion Li Xuerui and World No. 1 Carolina Marin who will be battling it out for a final spot. But if the Hyderabadi lass can reproduce today's performance, an Olympic Gold awaits her and the nation day after tomorrow.