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All England Open: PV Sindhu throws the kitchen sink at her, but An Se Young returns it with interest

The Korean’s all-round game proves too hot to handle for the Indian.

There is a clear Fab Four in women’s singles badminton currently. Tai Tzu Ying has a bag of tricks, so many different strokes in her arsenal to go with the ability to deceive her opponents. Akane Yamaguchi is like the Energizer Bunny on court, able to defend most things thrown at her. Chen Yufei, the reigning Olympic champion, has the footwork that helps her cover the corners of the court with efficient ease.

Then there is An Se Young who – scarily for the rest of the world – ticks all of those boxes. If you were to scientifically construct the perfect badminton player in a laboratory, the result would be somewhere close to this. On Thursday at the All England Open badminton championships, PV Sindhu would find that out for herself once more. The Indian went down 19-21, 11-21 in 42 minutes for her seventh defeat in as many matches against the Korean.

The World No 1 and the reigning World Champion, the outright favourite for Paris 2024 gold, is the most in-form player in the world over the last year. That she is a once-in-a-generation talent was evident even as a teenager, and at 22, she is dominating a category that was, not so long ago, one of the most wide-open in badminton.

Sindhu tried, though. In just her second World Tour event of 2024, Sindhu is still building up her physical and skill levels, and there were positives in Paris last week as she pushed Chen to the limits. In her quarterfinal run at the French Open, there were signs that Sindhu – now working with the legendary Prakash Padukone along with Indonesia’s Agus Dwi Santoso – was adding a few more shots to her repertoire. A deceptive reverse slice here, a half smash there.

Her primary strength remains her ability to hit through opponents’ defence and that is where An has proved to be a tough nut to crack for Sindhu.

In the first five points of the round-of-16 clash against An in Birmingham, Sindhu raised hopes of a different outcome. A down-the-line winner to An’s backhand, then a half-smash winner that caught her off guard, a crosscourt round-the-head smash that she failed to get to quickly enough… Sindhu was off to a flier.

Half a step ahead

But soon, An found her radar. As exemplary as her movement on the court is, the 22-year-old relies more on control than speed, and the ability to read her opponent’s strokeplay. She is so often half-a-step ahead of what’s coming from the other side of the net, and her balletic footwork ensures she gets into a good position early.

Trailing 8-11 at the interval, Sindhu received the message from Padukone to ‘attack a bit more’ and she’d do just that to close the gap to one point, coming out of the blocks with high tempo.

Then came a point at 10-12 that would have deflated anyone. Sindhu constructed a super rally, starting off with a couple of clears to push An back. She then drew the Korean forward with a spinning shot at the net, before pushing her back again going crosscourt. A forehand punch clear from Sindhu had An off balance, as the Korean just managed to get to the shuttle. Sindhu saw an opening, rushed to the net, and hit a backhand kill that would have won the point against anyone else in the world, arguably. But An was ready. She took a step back to the center, just casually got her racket down in time, and played the perfect backhand block into the empty net. She even broke into a little celebration, raising her arms to flex.

As if playing that ridiculous shot once wasn’t enough, she’d do that once more within a minute. The same punch-clear from Sindhu, the same off-balance forehand return from An. This time Sindhu went a little wider from An’s body with her attempted kill shot, but An got her racket out in time to find the empty corner of the court. Again.

This art of turning defence into a window of attacking opportunity is what makes An so difficult to play against. It brought to mind a famous tennis quote. As Andy Roddick said about Roger Federer after the Wimbledon 2004 final, “I threw the kitchen sink at him, but he went into the bathroom and got the tub.”

It’s easy to say Sindhu should just go all-out attack but An’s defence makes the Indian vulnerable to these subtle counterpunches. Sindhu stayed at it in the opening game, closing the gap down to 16-17, saved three game points but it was another defensive block winner, fittingly, that gave An the lead.

Sindhu had some moments of brilliance early in the second game, but soon the scoreboard pressure got to her. The Indian’s challenge, sturdy until then, fizzled out after the mid-game interval as the errors piled up.

“She is, of course, the top player now,” Sindhu said after the match. “But I should have been much more patient, I made unforced errors. There were easy mistakes. You know, in the first game it was fine but then I was coming closer and then giving away those two-three points. But I think in the second set I gave her a huge lead, and then I was making receiving mistakes.”

While the first game showed glimpses of how Sindhu can challenge An, the second game was a reminder of the work that still needs to be done. “She’s at the top at the moment and it’s important to keep up with her for that we need to work hard and be patient, work hard on our skill and technique,” Sindhu said. That’s the challenge that lies ahead.

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