"How do you feel right now?", Nozomi Okuhara was asked, not long after she beat PV Sindhu to claim the World Championships title.
"Just really tired," the new champion replied.
It was as honest as an answer was going to get. The 109-minute match was the longest of the tournament and one of the longest in badminton singles history (the record is 124 minutes for the final of the 1997 World Championships, when Peter Rassmussen beat Sun Jun).
This match was an epic, not just for its duration but also for the fact that, as it wore on, the intensity only seemed to grow. Even as they battled exhaustion, the rallies they played got steadily longer - especially in the 48-minute third game, when almost every point was a rally.
It was a cruel trick of nature, explains sports physio Nikhil Latey. Even as the player wants to finish off points, she simply isn't able to do so. "In the first game you are quite alert and sharp. You are playing fast. You get to position quickly and you can finish shots," says Latey, who has worked with Saina Nehwal. But as the match progresses, that movement starts to slow.
"After your first hour, the fuel available to your body starts to run low, you start feeling sluggish and your mind doesn't work as well as before. The amount of attacking you do tends to go down. For today's players, lactic acid would have begun accumulating in their muscles within ten minutes of play. It causes soreness, which is the body's way of telling the athlete to slow down or risk damaging muscle fibres... but obviously the player won't stop. "Because you aren't fast enough you aren't at the right place at the right time to execute the attacking shots," says Latey.
"You can't really train for it (such matches). It is just grit and determination that takes you through"
In most situations, this exhaustion would be capitalised on by the opponent. Yet on Sunday, both Okuhara and Sindhu closed in on the same stage of physical and mental exhaustion together. Not that either player would have realised it. "As a spectator you can see the players are slowing down, but on the court you don't really understand what's going on. You are trying to playing your best. You are in the zone. You aren't wondering, Am I playing correctly, do I need to change my strategy," he says.
Indeed, while coach Mulyo Handoyo could be seen gesturing Sindhu to push the shuttle down, the player herself was trapped in a rallying contest with Okuhara. "You feel that you are playing your normal game and no matter what you are doing, your opponent is picking you. Because both of them were tiring, they were not able to execute their winners. So that's why there were longer rallies towards the end. If you are slower, you aren't in the position to hit a winning shot. So because you are late you are mostly in a position to simply return it. And the same thing is happening to your opponent," Latey explains.
Most players try to ensure they can still perform effectively in long matches. While genetics play a role, much is determined by how hard athletes train for such encounters. "At a minimum, players will prepare for one and a half hours at a high intensity during training. Saina would train for two hours sometimes but the intensity would wear off at that point. But this match between Sindhu and Okuhara was unexpectedly long. There was no letup in the intensity. You can't really train for it," he says. "It is just grit and determination that takes you through. Okuhara probably wanted it just a little more. It's just as well this was the final. Neither player would be able to play at anywhere close to this intensity without at least a couple of days rest," he says.
So how come tennis players play for three hours or more? "The speed at which badminton is played is greater, with very little time to recover," says Latey. Badminton tournaments are typically held over five or six days, with players playing each day; in a Grand Slam, where the five-set format produces longer matches, players usually play every other day. "You get medical breaks and breaks between games in tennis. In badminton, you only get a break at the changeover," says Latey.