PV Sindhu walked onto the court in her yellow dress, and by the end of the night, she walked off it with a shiny medal around her neck, but it was not gold. She lost a thrilling encounter 21-19, 12-21, 15-21 against World No.1 Carolina Marin to win the silver medal in the women's singles final.
Still euphoric from her stunning win in the semifinal, PV Sindhu came into the match to face an opponent who has been her adversary since her junior days—Carolina Marin. The Spaniard is two years younger than the Indian, and Sindhu will hope that her career follows the same trajectory as the 23-year-old.
Marin had the better head-to-head record against Sindhu, and the last encounter between the two came at the 2015 Hong Kong Open, where Marin won in straight-sets. Earlier last year, Sindhu had defeated Marin, in a thrilling three-setter at the Denmark Open, and she would have hoped for the same.
The duo has followed contrasting paths to the final. While PV Sindhu has had to punch above her weight, Marin had hardly been challenged. There is a stark contrast in their style of play as well. Sindhu uses her powerful smashes, and the long reach to her advantage, while Marin uses electrifying pace on the court, and her ability to produce stunning angles on her shot—she is the only left-handed player in the top-10.
In the semi-final against World No.6 Nozomi Okuhara, PV Sindhu adopted the tactics of pushing her opponent back by hitting it deep to the backcourt and then made her opponent scamper to the nets with angled drop shots. On Friday, Carolina Marin used the same tactics against Sindhu in the opening exchanges of the first set.
Sindhu started off well, but soon Marin's screams got louder and so did the gap in points between the two players. Sindhu's aggressive play in the semis caught everyone's eyes, but Carolina Marin was a different kind of beast. Her fast court coverage meant she returned most of Sindhu’s attacking shots, while at the same time exploiting Sindhu’s lack of swift movement.
At 2-3, Sindhu and Marin played out one of the longest rallies of the opening set. Both moved across back and forth, with deep shots. Then Sindhu returned a loose drop shot, and Marin was at hand to advance to the net in a flash and smash it past the Indian. That was not the first time Marin was too quick for Sindhu's drop shots at the net. In fact, at 8-12, Marin was a bit too quick for her own good. The Spaniard came up with a strong net smash, but she touched the net before the shuttle landed to lose the point to Sindhu.
Most of Sindhu's points from there on came from Marin's errors, rather than the Indian winning them. However, the World Championship gold medallist kept the doors open for Sindhu with a number of them. At 16-14, Carolina Marin made a foul serve and the gap came down to just one point.
At 17-15, Marin made another crucial unforced error, when she hit the shuttlecock long after the longest rally in the first set to make it 17-16. Despite the close scoreline, Sindhu was clearly not at her best. Her smashes were not finding the corners of the court, while her drop shots were not dropping fast enough. Marin was dictating the pace of the match and Sindhu was barely keeping up.
However, Sindhu kept fighting till the end, and Marin made a number of unforced errors, like a missed drop shot at the net to give Sindhu a match point at 20-19. Then almost incredibly, after trailing for most of the first set, Sindhu won the set 21-19, as she caught the fleet-footed Marin flat-footed. There was no scream from the Spaniard, in fact, it was Sindhu who provided the scream, and a clenched-fist. She was down 16-19 in the set at one point and ended up winning it 21-19.
The loss in the first set was a shock to the World No.1. From nowhere Sindhu had arrived at the scene and took away the opening set even before Marin could realize her mistakes. The Spaniard needed a big comeback to get back into the match, but Sindhu just needed more of the same.
The screams from Marin got louder and louder in the second half, and the points kept creeping up for the Spaniard. But, Sindhu was yet to arrive in the second set. She returned to the net, and misjudged crucial points to give her opponent a giant lead. The World No.1 ran away with it and produced a jump smash to go into the break with a nine-point lead.
Even before the break, Sindhu had lost the second set. Coming back from a three-point lead was one thing, but nine points were a bit too much for her. It looked like Marin was toying with the Indian. Whatever the Indian tried, Marin was there to return everything that was thrown at her. Marin’s screams increased as the set went on, and there was complete silence at the other end of the net.
The only thing that remained in the set for Sindhu was to get back the momentum for the decider. But, Marin did not give even an inch to her opponent. Sindhu won points here and there to decrease the lead slightly, but Marin was relentless. By the time the score reached 18-10, Marin was smiling instead of screaming. Even the World No.1 failed to understand Sindhu’s sudden dip in form. It was all Marin, and she finished it with a clinical drop shot to take make it one all in the match by taking the second set 21-12.
Sindhu was nowhere in the second set, but history was on Sindhu’s side. The Indian had won all the three-setters between the two in the past, at the senior level, and for a gold medal, Sindhu needed a repeat of the same.
Sindhu had got a taste of her own medicine in the second set. Just like how she ran away with the match against Okuhara in the semis, Marin had outclassed her. In a battle of fitness and strength, Sindhu was never going to be a winner and it proved to be true. Gopichand whispered strategies to Sindhu after every point, but it was all Spain on the court, and in the stands.
Marin raced to a 6-1 lead in the decider, and she dictated the pace of the game. Sindhu tried to match her opponent in the same style, but it was never going to work against the World No.1. Sindhu needed something, and she needed it fast. Marin dominated the play near the net, and even when Sindhu pushed her to the backcourt, the Spaniard came back with a smash to destroy the plans of the Indian.
But, when everything looked over, Sindhu once again made a comeback from nowhere. It looked like a repeat of what happened in the first set, as Marin took her foot off the pedal. Sindhu was back with her dagger. A lovely backhand drop at 6-9 followed by another unforced error from Marin made it 8-9. All of a sudden, it was Marin who was panting. The smile was gone; the scream had left the building, giving way to an eerie silence. At 9-10, both the players participated in what was arguably the rally of the match. No one was ready to go down without a fight. Smash, smash, and smash was the mantra for both every time the shuttlecock came back into play. But, Sindhu had enough of it and smashed one straight into the body of Marin to draw par at 10-10.
Sindhu’s shot went a bit long in the next point, and it gave Marin a slender lead at the break. It was the final, and it was the match of the tournament. A small error or a bad line call was the only thing that was separating the two on court, and the screams after every point showed how desperately both of them wanted it.
Marin had the advantage. She had been in World Championship finals before and had won them convincingly. But, it was new for Sindhu. Something new, which the 21-year-old needed to conquer. The inexperience of Sindhu showed after the break. Marin’s smashes were ominous and with Sindhu finding it difficult at the net the scores suddenly jumped up to 12-16.
Once again it was Sindhu’s turn to make a comeback. She needed quick points, and the 21-year-old pulled it back with some strong smashes past the Spaniard. But, it was not over. From now on every point was filled with pressure, and the nerves showed for Sindhu. A wayward smash out of the court, and another one into the net ended her chances, and all of sudden it was gold-medal point for Marin. It was over and Marin ended it with a smash to leave Sindhu on the ground and to win the gold medal with 21-15 win in the third set. The juggernaut of the Indian was over, and a journey, which gave billions of Indians a hope, came to an end.
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