No PV Sindhu medal is complete without matching wits with the Japanese, and the Tokyo Olympics stars have aligned to pit her against Akane Yamaguchi in a potential quarterfinal. Should seedings stick to script, World No 7 Sindhu would be up against the home contender in the Last 8.
The last time they met, Sindhu beat Yamaguchi – almost a foot shorter, but twice busier – in three sets at the All England. It was a significant result in what was the Indian’s best fighting match of 2021. Downing the un-tiring Yamaguchi who retrieves endlessly and can still sneak in the offensive punch in her back-bending smashes, Sindhu had secured the confidence-booster in the early season at Birmingham.
Like she has been accustomed to, throughout her successful sojourns at the Majors, the reward for downing Yamaguchi could be an even more treacherous opponent – the deceptive dazzler, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei or the older talent-oozing Intanon Ratchanok.
Sindhu’s half is littered with shuttlers searching for their own big medals – with the Indian having played a part in denying them glory in past competitions. Tai Tzu alone was hassled out of the Rio Olympics and knocked out of the 2019 World Championships by Sindhu. As such, Sindhu will run into dangerously unfulfilled ambitions of shuttlers for whom Tokyo will be the last-chance saloon.
The other half of the draw has Chinese Chen Yufei, He Bingjiao, Korean An Se Young and gold-favourite Nozomi Okuhara.
Beware of the start
A gold medal, by definition, demands you prove your might against anyone else in the draw – and Sindhu has a couple of tricky potential hurdles even before she squares off against Yamaguchi (possibly) in the quarters. The Indian is clubbed in Group J with Hong Kong’s Cheung Ngan Yi, whose acrobatic defense and deception from the back, cannot be easily ignored.
Denmark’s Mia Blichfeldt was easily set aside earlier in March but can be particularly pugnacious. This Round of 16 opponent should keep her on her toes.
Great wall of Momota
B Sai Praneeth needed to avoid Viktor Axelsen and top-ranked Kento Momota of Japan early. The draw has been nastily unkind. Should he get past dangerous floaters Misha Zilberman and Mark Caljouw from Group D, Sai has NG Long ka Angus of Hong Kong, a hectic opponent who fancies his chances against Indians.
Momota’s nerves while trying to win Japan it’s first-ever gold in the home Games can be exploited. Whether Sai Praneeth can summon the belief needed to pierce through the most indestructible defense aiming at gold in Tokyo, remains to be seen.
At the 2019 World’s where Sai won India’s first men’s singles bronze in 26 years, he was beaten 21-13, 21-8 by Momota. Two months later, things got even more dire with a 21-6 scoreline at Denmark. But no one said Olympic medals came easy.
Rough draw for Satwik-Chirag
India’s men’s doubles pairing of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty have a punishing group-stage to negotiate. It’s Sanhok-level of difficulty, for the PUBG lovers.
As if being bunched with World No 1 Kevin Sukamuljo – Marcus Gideon – the busybody ‘Minions’ of Indonesia wasn’t enough, there is Lee Yang – Wang Chi Lin of Chinese Taipei, who set the Thailand tournaments on fire in January, throbbing to win in the same A Group.
British Ben Lane – Sean Vendy, picked ahead of their higher ranked compatriots – who won bronze at Rio and are in the middle of a spat of a selection blowout right now, will have a point to prove too.
Expected to be the surprise package of the Olympics for the country chasing its third successive Games medal, the Indians have a nasty, chaotic surprise of their own, to get off the mark. Satwik loves to smash his way out of these minefields typically rather than grind out. The Olympic draw though, might leave him with no choice now but to dial up the aggression.
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