PV Sindhu - India's most successful player at the BWF World Championships with five medals - is out in her first match of the 2023 edition in Copenhagen.
The 16th seed lost to the unseeded Nozomi Okuhara in straight games, 14-21, 14-21 despite having a 9-0 lead in the second game. On paper, this is a devastating result for Sindhu. This is the earliest she has lost at the Worlds since she won her first breakthrough medal as 17-year-old exactly a decade ago.
On a closer look, this is emblematic of her struggles since her return from a five-month injury layoff in January.
In an ideal world, PV Sindhu v Nozomi Okuhara would never have been a second-round match at the BWF World Championships. The pair have met in two World Championship finals before and both became world champions by beating the other. Their storied rivalry, indeed, comes from that epic Worlds final in 2017.
But, in 2023, at a time when both players have struggled to find their best form after injury setbacks, this clash of former world champions came very early at badminton's biggest stage. And it was the diametric opposite of almost everything that made this rivalry so special. It was also a brutal reminder that Sindhu is currently a shadow of the player she was.
She hasn't been herself since her return from a stress fracture in her left foot sustained during her gold-medal run at the Commonwealth Games last August. In 2023, she has lost in the first round of seven of the 15 BWF tournaments she has played. She has reached just one final and three semis, losing to opponents that she had previously beaten regularly. She has fallen down the rankings to No 15 and is no longer seeded on Tour, which has made her draws more difficult. She has had three different coaches accompany her and not looked like her old, attacking, confident self under anyone.
It's a difficult period, both for the player and those watching. And the match against Okuhara was a summary of everything that has gone wrong.
Sindhu struggled with her control, making numerous unforced errors and missing the lines when she tried to force play. Her movement, which was hampered in the early part of her return, has gotten better but Sindhu lacked the speed or power of years past, which led to a high error count that proved to be her undoing.
"It wasn't my game today, I felt," Sindhu said after the loss. "I think I should have taken the second game but I was hurrying it a bit, I think that made a huge difference. I should have controlled a lot more... There were long rallies and I was making unforced errors, just giving away the points and she was getting that confidence."
The match started on an even keel, with both players tentative and nipping at each others heels at 6-6. Sindhu, as a seed, had gotten a first-round bye while Okuhara had already played in the conditions, which seemed to give her an edge.
The Japanese star then built a three-point lead before Sindhu bounced back to level things at 9-9 but lost the next two to give up slight advantage at the interval. The second half though was all Okuhara - as she extended the lead, pounced on errors and kept her defence tight to race ahead.
The second game was the real blow for Sindhu. The change of ends saw Okuhara lose all momentum and she made a flurry of quick errors to hand Sindhu a 9-0 lead. It should have been all Sindhu needed to force a decider - with her Japanese opponent appearing frustrated with her mistakes. Sindhu let the advantage slip however, and Okuhara fought back and took control of the rallies - playing some superb points to reduce the lead to just one point at 9-10.
Sindhu then seemed to lose all steam as her opponent won the next six points from 10-12. The Indian started going for all-out attack on the lines, kept missing and the misjudging the shuttle. At 13-16, Sindhu played a vintage cross court smash, looking like her old self. But that was only a glimpse as Okuhara wrapped up the match soon after.
It was a match that will prompt a lot of soul searching from the Indian and her new coach Hafiz Hashim. With the Olympic qualification cycle having begun and the Asian Games next month, she has a lot of work to do.
But amidst this all, Okuhara's performance also offers hope that Sindhu can similarly make a slow but steady return to good form after a long injury layoff. The former world No 1 and world champion from Japan is still trying to work her way up to the top. The Indian is only 27 and has been around for a long time without a significant dip in form, which is a natural phase for any athlete especially after injury.
"I can work a lot on my physical and mental fitness because I know these kind of matches make you feel very bad but it's all part and parcel of the game and life.. For me it is important that I go back and prepare well for the next championship and come back stronger," Sindhu said.
In men's singles, both 9th seed HS Prannoy and 11th seed Lakshya Sen advanced to the third round.
Prannoy beat Indonesia's Chico Aura Dwi Wardoyo 21-9, 21-14 to set up a clash with 2021 world champion Loh Kean Yew, who the Indian leads 3-1 in their head-to-head battle.
Lakshya beat Korean Jeon Hyeok Jin 21-11, 21-12 to set up a clash with last time's finalist and third seed Kunlavut Vitidsarn, over whom he has a 5-3 H2H lead..