The day badminton had no limits
The Nozomi Okuhara-P.V. Sindhu final of the badminton world championship was about a sport with no known end, no final whistle, no finish line
One bent over. One fallen over. Both looking over.
What you got left?
Stand straight. Breathe. Serve. Run. It’s not over.
Edwin Moses, the hurdler, once said, “My slow is faster than most athletes’ fast." That’s Nozomi Okuhara.
Bethany Hamilton, surfer with one arm, once said: “Courage, sacrifice, determination, commitment, toughness, heart, talent, guts. That’s what little girls are made of; the heck with sugar and spice." That’s P.V. Sindhu.
That day, one of the best days of racket sport I have seen with its 75-second rallies in a world championship final, you can’t erase. At least not parts. Not Okuhara twisting backwards, stretching her body till she uses every available part of her limited centimetres; not Sindhu on the ground with the clenched fist, an athlete not forgetting her purpose even in a daze.
It’s been two weeks but it doesn’t matter because you’ll forget this match about as fast as middle-aged fans can forget the picture of decathlete Daley Thompson from the 1982 European Athletics Championships, standing at the end of the 1,500m as three men lie defeated and drained at his feet. He captions this photograph for the Daily Mail and writes: “Someone said it reminded them of Ali standing over Liston. I like that—but, unlike Ali, I’m looking for somewhere to lie down! The boys got there first."
That day is for everyone to savour, even for athletes, even Rahul Dravid, who watches. He, who once spent an entire day at the Kolkata crease in 2001, cramping in his legs and hands after tea, who is part of the priesthood of the persistent, wants to make it clear that nothing he did physically compares to this, for “this was intense, like playing on fumes, almost a sort of out of body experience".
I might be partial to art, to the elegant architecture of strokes and dribbles, but that style of sport just has to bend to this kind of day, which is rugged, pitiless, elemental, a day when sport seems to have greater meaning, a day that’s necessary to counter all the hype and hear-siren-and-applaud artificiality of sport, all the fabricated entertainment that’s meaningless in the face of the natural, unadorned contest.
That day is about limits. In The Right Stuff, his book about astronauts, Tom Wolfe wrote about “pushing the outside of the envelope" and later told The New York Times that test pilots “were speaking of the performance capabilities of an airplane as an envelope, as if there were a boundary". In a manner of speaking, most athletes know about boundaries, even amateurs, who arrive at that personal and painful point when sport asks:
What you got left?
Can you go another 500m on a weekend run when the body rebels? Can you stay committed for one more squash game when your heart is trying to exit your chest?
That badminton day the question got asked repeatedly and that day they dug, and pushed, playing perhaps even with a furious joy, a desperation, searching for third winds, fatigued before a point began and yet transformed once the shuttle was in play as they athletically explored the entire geography of the court. A journalist who was in Glasgow told me that after the match and before the medal ceremony, Sindhu just sat on the floor and cried, and it’s impossible to imagine the exhausted emotion of such a day, the emptiness of it. Forty-two years ago in Manila, in a sport truly brutal, Muhammad Ali said after he and Joe Frazier punished each other for 14 rounds: “It was like death. Closest thing to dyin’ that I know of."
That badminton day, when their suffering becomes its own entertainment, maybe we asked, why do they do all this, and of course it is to win. Why else would Jimmy Connors push himself at 39 at the 1991 US Open till he once had to do a post-match interview while attached to a drip? We’re not like Connors and we’re not like these women. We, on the outside, we’re the ones who think of The Gallant Loser and say They Are Both Champions but they’re driving themselves because they don’t want to be That Goddamn Gallant Loser but just The Only Bloody Champion.
That day you wish you could read the athlete’s mind. Does every long, lost point feel like breath wasted? What internal conversations are they having? Some days, says Dravid, people congratulate you, “what guts you showed, but you don’t think it, you don’t have to tell yourself to fight", you just do it, it happens. Instinct. Training.
That day makes you think about sport and time. Football lasts 90 minutes and the tension thickens as the seconds start to run out. Racing, with its set laps, has a similar suspense. In 2011, Tommy Hill won the British Superbike championship on the last lap of the last race by six thousandths of a second. Madness.
But that badminton day is about a sport with no known end, no final whistle, no finish line, and that’s the allure. You only stop when you win. You might run kilometres and train for this, but the moment, with its adrenalin and stress, can’t be simulated. Long match does not necessarily mean great match, but as time stretches, it asks different questions of commitment, will, stamina, and this time both players answer, and as Dravid says, “It’s rare to find two people like that, both of them in the zone." Usually one player cramps, or cracks, or falls away, but not on that day.
That day is a rugged advertisement for women’s sport and that day—as I once wrote of Rafael Nadal, another suffering saint—is what every aspiring sporting kid should see. Because it will either scare them away from sport forever or inspire them to want that sort of day. Where two women kept asking each other:
What you got left?
And the answer was always one more shot.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book, A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.