The fact that India would qualify for the knockouts (top 8 teams) at the Uber Cup 2022 was a foregone conclusion as the PV Sindhu-led India had rookie teams like Canada and USA in the group along with mighty Korea. So to qualify for the quarterfinals, India had to finish at least 2nd in the group. Which we did with ease as expected, defeating both Canada and their North American neighbours, the USA; both were drubbed 5-0.
Korea however was a different kettle of fish altogether. And with Sindhu rampaging past the opponents from Canada and USA, including the highly experienced Michelle Lii of Canada, one would have thought that she was well settled to finally brush off her current and recent nemesis Ahn Se Young – the top-ranked Korean.
Since November last year, the two have played umpteen times against each other but never had Sindhu come close to putting it across the rock-solid Ahn. So this match in the Uber Cup group stage had ignited a lot of interest and anticipation since the Indian No.1 looked fitter and stronger than before. But, she had also lost to Ahn – currently ranked 4th in the world – five times in a row before this match. Even though Sindhu started well, leading 13-8 in the opening game this was as far as she could go as the Korean upped the pace and rattled off point after point to win that first game 21-15, and never looked back. She took the second game 21-14, on a canter. India eventually lost 0-5. The Aakarshi Kashyap versus Kim Ga-eun (world-ranked 19) ended in a 10-21, 10-21 defeat with points flowing on a one way street to Korea. The doubles also were one-sided with Indians nowhere in the picture. In fact, the shame was that we did not win even a single game in the five matches contest. The only girl who did put up a fight of some stature was Ashmita Chaliha who managed 18 and 17 points against Sim Yu-jin.
And the only decent takeaway from this Uber Cup group stage for India was that barring the former world champion Sindhu, everyone else in the team was a debutant.
Players like Kashyap, Chaliha, who played the second and the third singles, and the doubles players – Simran Singhi, Tressa Jolly, Tanisha Crasto, Shruti and Ritwika Thaker, who between them played the first and second doubles, were thrust into the boiling cauldron of a huge big-ticket event where you are under immense pressure from the word go.
I am speaking from personal experience of one who had played four Thomas Cups in his career. These youngsters have been blooded in the biggest arena and this will help them by the time the next Uber Cup comes along after two years.
India has got bronze medals in 2014 in Delhi and in 2016 in China. In those two Uber Cups, Saina Nehwal spearheaded the Indian attack ably supported by a fast-rising Sindhu and the genius of Jwala Gutta – Ashwini Ponappa playing first doubles. It was really a strong team, whichever way you looked at it.
The quarterfinals against Thailand had a mouth-watering contest in the first singles pitting Sindhu against the legendary Thai ace Ratchanok Intanon who was world champion in 2013; at a young age of 18. She is a record three times world junior champion. Ratchanok started playing Badminton at the age of 6 and won her first title at age of 7. Making her intentions very clear even at that innocent age, that she meant business.
A lovely, effortless mover on the court she plays with consummate ease and never looks hurried while playing her shots. But she has been injury-prone in her career, missing out on many top events due to some injury or another.
Sindhu’s head-to-head against Ratchanok is 11 matches, with 7 victories going to the Thai ace. So Sindhu was well aware of what sort of tactics she had to employ in her match against Ratchanok.
This awaited encounter however did not live up to the expectations. I expected Sindhu to come out with all guns blazing, and smash through the defence of Ratchanok, but for reasons only best known to her, she played the waiting game, going for long rallies and playing a mix of fast disguised drops and probing half smashes.
Playing against the notorious drift on her side, Ratchanok found it difficult to control the bird from her side. And the initial nerves and hiccups prevented Sindhu to start dominating the first game. But with some deft netplay, Sindhu started moving ahead and led 7-3, 8-4, then onto 10-5 and 11-6 at the midway point. However, Ratchanok caught Sindhu on her forehand flank, garnering few points and came close to 18-19 from a 15-19 deficit and for a few heartbreaking moments it did look as if she might go past the Indian ace, but two superb counter dribbles and resulting smash on the body won Sindhu the game 21-18, in 17 minutes.
In the second game, playing from the better side as far as air drift was concerned, Ratchanok played with much better control and raced to an 11-4 lead. Her deception also was on display and she played superb reverse angled fast drop shots to catch Sindhu on the wrong foot. Ratchanok never allowed Sindhu to get a peek into the game and led all the way through to run home 21-17 in 21 minutes. True, there were also some heavily disguised drop shots, steep and kissing the lines that gave Sindhu a couple of points but it was not enough.
The third game started with a long rally which was won by Ratchanok and it set the trend for things to come. Running off to a 10-6 and 11-8 lead, the Thai player was never threatened. Catching Sindhu on deep forehand flicks elicited easy returns which she devoured happily. The wristy half smashes again on the forehand side were magical.
She raced off to 15-11, 17-12 and finally won the decisive game 21-12 in 22 minutes. It did look as if she could do much more, but Sindhu just did not show the fighting spirit she is famous for.
With the first point in their pocket, the hosts never looked back and India crashed out 0-3. In the first doubles, Simran and Shruti were shown the exit 16-21 13-21 in 37 minutes. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the Indian girls kept looking behind to see what their partner will do with a high shuttle. They should have been focussing on looking at the opponents, raising the racket as the shuttle passes them and then be in attacking mode. Even 1/10th of a second lost looking behind will make you lose a point.
Plus the middle muddle was too apparent and many times the smash hit between the two of them went unanswered. Pornpawee Chochuwong was far too strong for Kashyap, winning the second singles 21-16, 21-11 in 42 minutes and that wrapped up the tie for Thailand.
So all in all, as I mentioned earlier our new generation got a chance to showcase their talent. They should take-home lessons and memories that will help them to become better players. As far as Sindhu is concerned, she was only to be tested twice, first against Ahn of Korea and in the knockouts against Ratchanok of Thailand. It was her golden chance to redeem herself, but that did not happen – which is sad. She has so much to give to India still as she is only 26. But it will take some doing. She should be willing and keen to go back to the drawing board.