PV Sindhu vs Nozomi Okuhara: Mother of modern badminton rivalries
The Japanese shuttler, standing at just over five feet, barely reaches the net cord when upright while the Indian badminton star towers almost a foot above her.
PV Sindhu has built her game on smashing the shuttle with tremendous power while Nozomi Okuhara moves around the court swiftly recovering them and relies more on her delicate precision.
Yet, they share a lot in common.
Both badminton stars boast of medals at the Olympics and multiple ones at the World Championships and were born within four months of each other.
More importantly, they are two of the biggest names in badminton currently and more often than not, produce epic matches when up against each other.
The two have faced each other 17 times over the years, and their head-to-head record – Sindhu leads with nine to Okuhara’s eight – makes it almost impossible to pick a favourite.
“Every time we play, it is a new game, I must say,” PV Sindhu said. “I don’t think about other matches and just play each match like a fresh game.”
As with most great rivalries, the PV Sindhu vs Nozomi Okuhara story also began with a blood-pumping encounter at the junior level.
The initial contests
The duo first butted heads in the final of the Badminton Asia Youth U-19 championships in Korea in 2012, and it gave fans the first glimpse of the three-game marathons that would follow in the coming years.
The then 17-year-olds were involved in an intense battle, with Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara winning the first game and PV Sindhu clawing back in the second.
The Indian badminton star was leading 19-16 in the deciding game but her Japanese counterpart then reeled off four consecutive points to come within touching distance of winning the title.
However, PV Sindhu kept her calm then to win the three points she needed to win the final 18-21, 21-17, 22-20 and give herself the perfect birthday present two days after it had gone by.
Both of them had graduated to the senior level when they met again at the Hong Kong Open in 2014, which Nozomi Okuhara won this time, yet again in three games.
The script would repeat itself for the next two match-ups between them as the Japanese shuttler seemed to possess the upper-hand in the deciding games with her incredible stamina helping chart victories.
The Rio 2016 clash
PV Sindhu and Nozomi Okuhara met for a fifth time in the semi-final of the Rio 2016 Olympics.
It was a maiden Olympic venture for the then 21-year-olds and provided Indian badminton fans the first instance of PV Sindhu raising her game at big-ticket events.
As it has come to typify in the past three years, the tie went back-and-forth with both shuttlers regularly exchanging points with PV Sindhu winning the first game after her opponent netted a smash.
The second game saw a lot more unforced errors from Nozomi Okuhara, making it easier for the Indian badminton star as she focused on placing the shuttle inside the court and ended the contest with a smash to move into the semis with a 21-19, 21-10 victory.
It was the first time that PV Sindhu beat Nozomi Okuhara in straight games, and it was a more impressive feat for the former, considering the Japanese star had won the prestigious All England Open earlier in the year.
PV Sindhu progressed to the final, eventually becoming a silver medallist and establishing herself as Indian badminton’s newest star while Nozomi Okuhara won bronze to also win a medal at her debut Olympics.
The World Championships finals
A year later, the Sindhu-Okuhara story produced its most legendary chapter, arguably also in the history of the sport itself.
The Emirates Arena in Glasgow, Scotland played witness to one of the most engrossing battles of shuttle skills, stamina, and mental strength, one which lasted almost two hours that Nozomi Okuhara emerged a victor from in the BWF World Championships final.
The duo brought their respective strengths to the fore, but one could see that Nozomi Okuhara was the favourite – she had beaten two Olympic medallists in Carolina Marin and Saina Nehwal en route the final – where she beat one again.
PV Sindhu battled toe-to-toe with her Japanese counterpart for all three games, none of them were won by a margin of more than two points, and defied the general perception of her not possessing enough stamina multiple times through the match.
The duo also played out a 73-shot rally, the longest seen in the women’s game, and they fell to the court in sheer exhaustion as the game drained them the longer it went on.
"It was anybody's game. It's upsetting to lose, but you can't say anything at the end of such a match. Every point was tough and we were both not letting go. It was never over from both sides,” PV Sindhu told ESPN after the match.
The Japanese eventually held her own in the dying embers to win the first of her two World Championships medals. PV Sindhu would deny her the gold medal two years later.
In the most epochal moment for Indian badminton, the current world number six came out all guns blazing in the final to win 21-7, 21-7 in just 38 minutes to become the world champion and the first Indian to win the BWF title.
The duo had faced each other twice before in 2019, at the Indonesia Open and Singapore Open and shared the spoils.
PV Sindhu had also beaten Nozomi Okuhara to win the inaugural BWF World Tour Finals in 2018, one that followed twin wins at the quarter-finals of the All England Open and the BWF World Championships earlier that year.
The most recent encounter occurred at the 2020 All England Open in March, where Nozomi Okuhara won 12-21, 21-15, 21-13 to hit back after losing the previous two matches against her eternal rival.
The story will no doubt produce many more action-filled chapters, and it is one that brings much joy to fans of the sport.