Lingering feelings of loss can play a few tricks on the mind, and in sport, with the body, if not consciously addressed. Not all statistics in sport are inconsequential – though ask PV Sindhu and she’ll check her tournament badge, read ‘World Championships’ or ‘Olympics’, smile and wave away any nagging doubts about a pre-quarterfinal opponent.
Not since 2013 has Sindhu lost before a quarterfinal in the two biggies – Olympics and Worlds. That’s eight consecutive mega majors. There are four finals, three minimum semifinals (2013, 2014 Worlds, 2020 Olympics) and the 2015 quarters. There are innumerable invisible struggles, of course, in reaching the Friday of any tournament. But one has come to expect Sindhu to hurdle over these and get into the business weekend of big tournaments – which she unfailingly manages without a fuss.
But as a difficult 2021 fades out of the calendar, there’s suddenly a pre-quarterfinal that may require the Indian World No. 7 to crank up her attention and “be careful”, as Carolina Marin had said soon after losing to this same opponent in Barcelona. Pornpawee Chochuwong likes Spain, ever since she won her first title there, beating the local favourite. It should prick Sindhu’s ears.
The Indian has lost to Chochuwong the last two times they played in circuit events – the three-gamer at the World Tour Finals, an improvement on the All England daze the Thai No. 10 inflicted earlier. The career head-to-head is 4-3 for Sindhu, but the giant-killer with the gracefulness of a gazelle counts amongst her scalps Ratchanok Intanon and Tai Tzu-Ying, besides Marin.
Sindhu kept her date with finals at the year-ender in a depleted field. But the reason she will be alert on pre-quarterfinals day is Chochuwong’s ability to skid-stop opponents who are typically thinking a step ahead, about the big knockouts. Marin was looking at Birmingham and the All England, when the Thai tripped her at home.
Tricky, pacy, fighter
The reason Sindhu will need to be on her toes more than usual is more than the recent history of losses, though those can leave smidgeons of doubts, even for a big-tournament player like the defending World Champion.
Chochuwong is Ratchanok-lite. That is to say this younger Thai has plenty of wristy deception in her game, an intuitive sense of rhythmic badminton, but no World Championship at 18. She narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics even.
Supremely skillful, Chochuwong has only propped up her fitness to top levels in the last few years. Drag her into a defensive slugfest – not tough on the slowish Huelva courts – and she might not exactly scramble deftly or be able to defend from anticipation as Ratchanok does.
Lure her into the long game teasing her patience and she can succumb, that’s how Akane Yamaguchi goes about beating Chochuwong. But Sindhu’s best course of action will be playing a notch better than she has been in the post-Olympic season. That Sindhu needs to step up is not in debate, that she needs to summon her power game for this one is the variable.
A physical overpowering rather than a physical outlasting is called for against this trickiest of opponents. Pace doesn’t bother Chochuwong, power does, so Sindhu will need the revs on her shoulder blades. Her setting the pace and dictating can make this one-sided, but Chochuwong isn’t one to be dictated easily, so the power generator will have to chug into action.
As a last gasp, Sindhu can fall back on long rallies of course. Chochuwong tends to get fatigued and that’s enough of a window for Sindhu to take advantage. Though that brings with a separate set of troubles – carried forward onto Friday.
But the exigencies of Thursday first. Typically, Chochuwong has exploited Sindhu’s porous body defence and, like everyone on the circuit, the forecourt forehand corner. Sindhu’s reach is bleedingly obvious, so most opponents are aiming the shuttle at her body, knowing that can befuddle her more than the running around. Chochuwong simply has the weapons to make this look like a maze, testing Sindhu’s judgment around the overhead strokes.
The Thai’s smash can be biting, despite all the artistry and she coolly manipulates pace – which will demand Plans A and B or alternatively both of Sindhu.
Perhaps not the wisest of thoughts to entertain ahead of a pre-quarterfinal, but this World Championship is tricky for Sindhu simply because Chochuwong is followed by a likely face-off with Tai Tzu-Ying on Friday.
Tough to gauge what mental framework or motivation Tai Tzu is in, after four months off. But if she’s out to finish the Olympics script – she had to settle for silver, she said with a frown earlier – then Sindhu could be up against two hugely driven women on consecutive days.
The imminent Tai Tzu clash, makes it imperative that Sindhu ruthlessly cuts short the Chochuwong precursor to under 15 points in straight games.
The recipe is straightforward: two parts aggression, one part pace, constant stirring of brute power. And a calm head, leaving it to coach Park Tae-sang to toggle gameplans, because Chochuwong won’t allow a walk in the park. There is the Thai’s fighting spirit that caught Marin unawares. Sindhu, acutely aware of this after the last two losses, will know it’s not just any other pre-quarterfinal. The big occasion will demand a big step-up.