One shuddered at the gloomy thought of India’s largest ever contingent in Olympics games coming back empty-handed. Then when all seemed lost, two women came to the nation’s rescue by eking out performances of their lifetime. While badminton star PV Sindhu progressed merrily, the same was not the case of 58-kg freestyle wrestler Sakshi Malik. She had to fight heavy odds after trailing 0-5 against Aisuluu Tynybekova of Kyrgyzstan. Then the Indian engineered a gallant rearguard action and didn’t allow Tynybekova any respite to mount the medal rostrum with an 8-5 victory. In women’s singles badminton semifinal, PV Sindhu looked determined all the way despite stiff resistance by her Japanese opponent Nozomi Okuhara and progressed to the gold medal match on Friday. Print and electronic media in India is going gaga over the achievement of the nation’s two heroines, who have brought honor by their brilliant show towards the fag end of 2016 Games.
Sakshi Malik has done something that is beyond the most distant dreams of wrestlers. The bronze medal that she brought for the nation didn’t come on a platter. Her progress through the rounds can make the pages of wrestling history as an interesting episode. In the first two rounds, Sakshi bounced back from the brink of an early elimination. In her first fight, Sakshi was down 0-4 against Sweden’s Malin Johanna Mattsson before making a strong comeback. She won at 5-4 with less than 10 seconds remaining in the round. In her next match, Sakshi was level at 5-5 with Moldova’s Mariana Cherdivara Esanu but she was declared a winner because she led in the double take-down compared to her opponent’s just one. This is how she entered the quarterfinals. Then she lost 2-9 in the quarterfinal against Russian wrestler Koblova. When it seemed that Sakshi’s wrestling campaign at Rio had ended, she got a reprieve. Sakshi’s Russian conqueror Koblova reached the final and that allowed the Indian to compete in the repechage round. Now Sakshi was back in the reckoning for another go at the bronze.
Sakshi needed to beat Mongolia’s Purevdorjiin Orkhon to advance to the bronze-medal play-off. She began cautiously and was tied at 2-2 at the break. However, the Indian summoned her will and collected as many as 10 points in the second period and coasted to victory. In the bronze-medal match against Kyrgyzstan’s Aisuluu Tynybekova, Sakshi went downhill as the bout began. The superior Kyrgyzstani scored 5 points to none by the Indian. Then Sakshi began her comeback to a great surprise of the judges. She didn’t allow much leeway to Tynybekova and scored one point after another, in a suddenly dramatic dominance. Her extraordinary fighting spirits ensured the 8-5 victory and the bronze medal. Besides the distinctive show, Sakshi Malik also ended India’s medal drought.
Then it was Sindhu’s turn to bring further cheer for Indian fans. She played the crunch semifinal against Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara, who herself has been a rising star on the badminton firmament. Nothing could be taken for granted despite Sindhu’s good performance in the earlier round, including her quarterfinal victory against Chinese strongwoman Wang Yihan. But the 21-year old Sindhu showed her class with an all-round game and led in the tightly contested opening game. She never relinquished her lead despite the Japanese eating into Sindhu’s advantage. The two had different styles of play. While Sindhu was a picture of aggression with the speed and power behind her shots, Okuhara relied on stonewalling everything that Sindhu sent to her. Sindhu needed to keep the rallies short because the Japanese seemed to have unlimited staying power. The first game was close with Sindhu winning at 21-19. In the second, they exchanged leads until 10-10 and Sindhu went for the break leading 11-10. When they came back, it was Sindhu all the way as she forced Okuhara into making several errors and closed the match with a historic 21-19, 21-10 victory. Now the Indian will have to outsmart world no.1 Carolina Marin to win India’s only gold medal at Rio.
On her part, Marin came through with a bit of luck against China’s defending Olympic champion Li Xuerui. Marin was razor sharp in the first game and didn’t allow any respite to the Chinese in pocketing the game 21-14. Li recovered in the second game and patiently build a 14-11 lead. But Marin found her shots and scored several points to lead 17-16. At this point, Li met with a disaster. She lost her balance and injured herself. After the medical help, Li was not the same player and conceded an easy 21-14, 21-16 victory to the Spaniard.