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If beating An Se Young in Round 2 of the All England next week and marching further to take a proper shot at the one title she doesn’t have was the manifesting, then PV Sindhu was on track at the French Open on Friday. A quarter was indeed given. Sindhu lost 24-22, 17-21, 18-21 to Chinese Chen Yufei. But there was just about sufficient menace in her game against the Olympic champion to show that she can turn merciless at a flick of a switch next week at Birmingham.

It’s rarely about fitness or form for Sindhu in the big matches. She doesn’t step onto the court unless she’s physically ready, and since her early years, past matches, petty grudges and prolonged phases don’t daunt her. New match, and Sindhu is ready to battle. It’s almost always about how confident she feels, and the Indian gave Yufei some pretty miserable moments on court that will make her crossing of the English Channel a perky ride full of optimism.

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Coach Prakash Padukone kept telling her to relax. Who better than him to keep sights on the real battle? But Sindhu needed more than positive takeaways from the Yufei match; she needed the world to know there was plenty left to unleash in her arsenal. Paris was a sneak peek.

First, the negative nit-picking. Sindhu, like HS Prannoy, needs to get going quicker in a match. She trailed 6-12 in the opener, which is half a dozen points too many spent in trying to align her range with the drift and assorted shuttle conditions. No one doubts that she won’t make up the early lead, but it sets her up for a scramble to chase the opener, prolonging into a sluggish second set that goes away taking a breather and an inevitable decider. Her first-set rally in Paris, though, was one for the ages.

Yufei did the smart thing of giving the shuttle altitude, high lifts, tall tosses, deep clears, all of them making Sindhu stretch out and sapping on her energy. Once pinned back, the Chinese resorted to that quick snappy shot on Sindhu’s body or her hip flanks. There were a fair few drops to the forecourt predictably testing the lunge.

But Sindhu caught up at 15 from 11-15 down with remarkable mileage in her retrieving feet. She was chasing down everything that could be swatted back in those four points. Then she went on the offensive: her choice of weapon the slice drops with a delicious disguise. Packing Yufei to the backline isn’t difficult but she can intercept mid-court follow-ups. Sindhu kept the best for the last in Set 1.

She could clamp down on 20-19 lead, but survived a set point, and snatched another at 23-22, making Yufei run back and front. But it was the last point that proved to be a peach. Because Sindhu’s blood-rush, teeth-grinding smash is her go-to 9 times out of 10, Yufei retrieved yet another backline floater and hung around just a tad too much in the back court watching Sindhu shape up for the deep running smash. The Indian charged the net alright, but pulled back the racquet the last possible moment to slice the shuttle like an Indian would an onion for a green salad when guests come: sharp knife, thin ring, so close to the net.

Yufei, whose entire game is in her intuitive footwork, lurched forward like a drunk. Sindhu 24-22.

You’d think the Chinese couldn’t be conned a second time, but Sindhu managed it once more. What she couldn’t completely control were the mid-court near-parallel fast exchanges, which would see errors accumulate in the net and her dragged into a decider. When made to twist and turn picking shuttles below the tape, Sindhu struggled to vault them over. The wrist could do with more strengthening for the flicks, and lots of fun doubles sparring in the coming months could prepare her for this flat game at the high pace that Yufei adores.

The Chinese quickens rallies and lures opponents into fast exchanges, because she strikes the shuttle nice and high and early with her hop-jumps. Sindhu ran and ran endlessly, defended bravely, but was crowded by the flats, and then stung by the body attack, unable to control the reflex returns. Yufei opened up an unassailable lead at 16-14 and then didn’t take her foot off the pedal till 21-18.

Still, Sindhu had two promising strokes besides the drops. She was hop-smashing on both feet off the ground from the back court, like it was 2016. And she had round-the-head accelerated whacks, like her racquet strings were from the future, in 2026. Sindhu will get another go at Paris in six months. What she played on Friday was a nice reel, wishing an unhappy weekend to An Se Young before All England.

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