This article first appeared on Firstpost.com
Carolina Marin is a name Indian badminton fans know well. They know her as the woman who denied PV Sindhu a gold medal in the Rio Olympics in 2016. Sindhu had to be content with silver again at the BWF World Championships in Glasgow, thanks to a player who has beaten Marin five times in their last six meetings.
Sindhu had spoken about wanting to change the colour of the bronze she won in 2014, but her alchemy was cut one shade short. She may have a spotless record against the Chinese at the Worlds, but it was a Japanese player that finally ended her run. In the longest match of the tournament, Nozomi Okuhara became the first Japanese woman to win a Singles World Championship Gold, pipping Sindhu 21-19, 20-22, 22-20. Having beaten Saina Nehwal in the semifinal, Okuhara had personally broken Indian hearts twice, and walked away not just with the yellow metal, but also the grudging respect of Indian fans.
While it was her celerity on court that had the crowd ooh-ing and aah-ing, many of her habits were very relatable for Indian viewers, perhaps even endearing. Bowing before and after stepping on court would not have looked out of place at a Pro Kabaddi match or at some cricket games, where players routinely bend to seek the blessings of the arena before the game. There was nothing ostentatious about her strokeplay, no screams at the end of the point. And there was none of the time wasting tactics that Sindhu surprisingly employed, which eventually earned her a yellow card. It was racket skills that swelled the size of the Okuhara fan club, already nearly 35 thousand strong on Instagram and 50 thousand strong on Twitter.
The 155-cm tall right-hander’s signature shot was the overhead from the backhand corner. She used the extra millisecond afforded by her short stature to get into a position that would win admission into the Iyengar Institute of Yoga. At the point of contact, her racket was almost parallel to the ground, back arched as if her spine was as pliable as solder wire but made out of titanium. And if ever research needs to be done on the limits of the ball-and-socket joint, Okuhara’s shoulder should be the subject, so fluent and fast was her arm-swing from that most awkward of angles.
Okuhara’s proficiency at that shot meant that she played fewer backhands, while she peppered Sindhu’s own left side, helping her take the first game despite trailing 5-11 at the break. Her use of the drop shot stood out. While she isn’t a power player who relies on smashes, her efficient and accurate drops from the baseline forced Sindhu to use her considerable reach to the fullest, with the shuttle often beating her to the front court corners.
While the scorecard tells you that it was a close game, Okuhara was the more consistent player on court, controlling the rallies more often, making fewer errors, and seeming to have more energy despite the marathon. This despite the fact that, she had spent more than 40 minutes (264) longer than Sindhu (223) on court in the lead up to the final, playing grueling three setters in both the quarters and semis. But even after a rally that lasted 73 shots and gave the second game to her opponent, Okuhara was looking ebullient on court at the start of the decider, while it was Sindhu who struggled physically in the early stages of the final game.
The Japanese missed most of the 2013 season due to a knee injury. But she has steadily built back the confidence on her return, clinching major titles like the Dubai World Super Series Finals (2015), the All England Open (2016), and Olympic bronze (2016, she lost to Sindhu in the semifinal). She came into this tournament having won the Australian Open Super Series in June. Her final three scalps in Glasgow: Marin, Nehwal and Sindhu.
No highlights package tells the story of the match better than the body language of the two players. In particular, Okuhara’s distinctive habit of talking to herself before stepping on court shows why this was one of the best women’s singles matches in recent badminton: At each interval, Okuhara would stand just outside the sideline, and have an animated conversation with herself, before bowing and stepping on court.
While language barriers mean we can only guess exactly what she was saying – perhaps affirmations, perhaps she was reminding herself of her game plan — it was the body that did all the talking. In the opening game, she spoke with a clear voice, gazing forward, complete with hand gestures. It was much the same in the second game, but before the decider, her voice was down to a whisper, although her spine and shoulders were still unbent. At the interval of the third game, she closed her eyes, clutched the racket close to her heart, and her words were inaudible, but the emotion on her face spoke louder.
It was as if she spent a moment mustering every last ounce of determination in her spent body, and used it to fight for each inch at the back end of the match. From 11-11 in the decider, the two players went back and forth every point, taking it to 17-17. From there, Sindhu pulled ahead with a two point lead, but Okuhara cut it down. It was a trend we saw from her throughout the match; she overcame six-point deficits in the first two games as well. It was Okuhara who claimed the first match-point, then saved one, finally converting the win on her second, fittingly with the drop shot that had served her so well.
Okuhara never played a bronze medal match in Rio; she won it by default when Li Xurei pulled out after picking up an injury in her semi-final. She ended her Olympics with a loss, but still claimed a medal. She later told Badminton Unlimited that it left her “More disappointed and frustrated than happy.” Now she has the most rewarding of results, against an opponent who has pushed her to three sets in all their BWFencounters. At just 22 years of age, she is World Champion.
Nozomi Okuhara will leave Glasgow with the title, having taught India another name.