Two gladiators, out of form and on the mend after injury, clashed once again on the big stage. The contest, between Pusarla V Sindhu and Nozomi Okuhara, wasn’t in the tradition of their memorable bouts of the past, and left them with contrasting feelings – Okuhara with hope, and Pusarla with despair.
Okuhara was the sharper player, recovering from 0-9 down in the second to take the match in straight games and enter the third round. Her campaign at the TotalEnergies BWF World Championships 2023 has already seen her win more matches than in all seven previous tournaments this year, and so she had reason to smile.
“I feel much better today,” said Okuhara, who had skipped the last World Championships due to a right femoral stress fracture. “I wasn’t nervous at all. It was just myself challenging a good opponent. It was difficult getting back when I was 0-9 down, but once I reached 11, I was able to regain my confidence.
“Of course I feel special when I face her, because we’ve played at the Olympics and the World Championships in the past. It’s a very special feeling.”
Okuhara and Pusarla are inextricably linked, thanks in no small part to their epic World Championships 2017 final which the Japanese won after a gruelling 110 minutes. Since then there have been more contests, including another World Championships final, with Pusarla having the edge in career meetings at 10-8.
While both have struggled with injuries and loss of form, Pusarla has had better recent results, making a final and two semifinals this season. Yet, she’s certainly far from the player who was challenging for the big prizes. The lack of results seemed to puzzle her, and her voice cracked.
“I’ve been losing in the early rounds. But I shouldn’t lose hope, and I should believe in myself. I know it’s really sad, I feel bad, I’ve been working hard, but nothing’s working out,” said the Indian.
“But it’s important that I go back and work on my skills mentally and physically and come back stronger.”
As for Okuhara, she said she was still at “50 or 60 per cent” of her prime.
“There were so many complicated feelings within me,” said Okuhara after her first match, which was only her second win all year. “First of all, I really wanted to cherish each game and I think I focussed on one stroke and one point at a time and enjoyed it very much.
“This is my starting line. Everybody has started competing for Olympic qualification but I couldn’t feel that way yet. So this tournament is finally where I begin my journey to the Olympics.
“It’s been really hard for me to stand on the court, but I’m so happy to be here thanks to the support of many people. I haven’t been able to play my best level yet but I will keep playing better, especially for my fans who are waiting for me.”