An inconsistent Saina Nehwal saved four match points before losing to Nozomi Okuhara after PV Sindhu’s gritty win over world number one Japanese Akane Yamaguchi, as India crashed out of the Asian Games women’s team event today.
The Indian women’s team, which won a historic bronze in the last edition in Incheon, lost the quarterfinal to the top-seeded and the most formidable team in the world.
It was always going to be a close affair between Sindhu and Yamaguchi but the Indian prevailed in the tight opening singles 21-18 21-19.
Sindhu, who took 41 minutes to put India ahead, had also beaten Yamaguchi at the recent World Championship on the way to the final.
N Sikki Reddy and Arathi Sunil struggled to contain unforced errors and lost tamely 15-21 6-21 to Yuki Fukushima and Sayaka Hirota, allowing the Japanese to make it 1-1.
In the crucial second women’s singles, Saina made a dramatic comeback from nowhere and saved four match points in the second game, but eventually lost 11-21 25-23 16-21 after battling for one hour and 11 minutes.
Saina initially struggled to contain her unforced errors while Okuhara was disciplined. The Indian hit almost everything either over the line or on to the net but made a stunning comeback.
She, though, could not take advantage of the momentum and again lost five points in a row from 16-16 in the decider to lose the match to Okuhara, who felt the heat towards the end but was helped by inconsistency from the Indian.
In the must-win fourth rubber, Sindhu and Ashwini Ponappa lost 13-21 12-21 to reigning Olympic champions Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi, who were solid with their defence.
“It was a tough draw facing Japan in the first match. I was keen to give India a good start from my side. The doubles players also did well but the Japanese played a very tactical game. Saina also gave her 100 per cent, it was 16-16 in the third set and few points made the difference,” Sindhu told PTI.
“Somewhere down the line, the Japanese (Miaki and Ayaka) played good strategy, they made us made mistakes. The top-10 teams in the world are same standard, we can’t say they are tough or easy. Though each player is different.”
Ponappa said though she does not play with Sindhu regularly, she was the best option to play with.
“Sindhu was my pick. She is a strong and hard smasher. We were confident of pulling off this win. We had played against Thailand in Uber Cup and had won the decider,” she said.
Asked what made the difference despite having one of the top singles players by her side, Ponappa said, “It was a defence”.
“The defence in the singles and doubles is different. They played very smartly. They had studied our game and played with a good strategy. Also, the Japanese and Indonesians are very good with their defence.”
Okuhara stood out with her retrieving. There was just one point in the entire first game, which Saina dominated, and that too Okuhara prolonged with her amazing recovery and movement on the court.
Okuhara remained disciplined while Saina could not rein in here errors. The Indian was soon trailing 11-19. A smart winner from Okuhara sealed the opening game.
Okuhara stayed strong with her returns and court movement, racing to a 7-1 lead. Saina got her second point only when Okuhara committed a rare unforced error.
The Indian also struggled with her judgement in leaving the shuttles while Okuhara remained remarkable accurate.
From 7-15, Saina logged five straight points and turned the game on its head. She made it 20-20 from nowhere.
Saina buried a smash to the net to give Okuhara her fourth match point but saved it with another down the line smash. She had her first game point at 23-22 but hit long. She finally made it 1-1 when Okuhara failed to return a drop volley.
Egged on by her teammates, shouting ‘jeetega bai jeetega India jeetega’, Saina yet again reduced the deficit to open up a two-point lead at first break.
With better control over her shots and agile movement, Saina kept troubling the Japanese. The two players were heading towards an exciting finish after being locked 16-16.
From there Saina lost five points in a row. At 16-17, she left the shuttle, thinking it was out, but it fell in.
Saina hit a smash out on the right side of Okuhara, looking for a winner, but ended up conceding a crucial three-point lead. Okuhara made sure there was no drama in the end and heaved a sigh of relief when Saina’s backhand return met with the net.