For a lot of athletes, winning an Olympics medal is the pinnacle of their career. For PV Sindhu, it was the beginning.
“Rio Olympics was a stepping stone for me,” Sindhu tells Lounge during a video interaction from Hyderabad. The Indian badminton star, all of 21 when she made her Olympic debut at Rio 2016, had captured the country’s imagination as she jump-smashed and fist-pumped her way to the women’s singles final.
“It (2016 Olympics) changed my life completely; gave me a lot of confidence,” the 26-year-old says. “Maybe going into Rio, I was childish, almost, where I would just think everything is fine. Now I’m a professional, I know what I’m doing and what needs to be done. I have been improving step by step and have come so far. As a person, I have matured a lot.”
Though Sindhu lost 21-19, 12-21,15-21 to Carolina Marin in a thriller of a final in Rio, she has been a permanent, towering figure on the Indian sporting landscape ever since. She has won medals at almost all major badminton tournaments. After settling for silver at the World Championships for two years in a row, in 2017 and 2018, Sindhu clinched a gold medal at the 2019 edition in Basel—the first Indian to do so.
Very few Indian athletes have done so well, so consistently, for the past five years. And going into the Tokyo Olympics, which begin on July 23, the pressure to come back with a medal will be immense.
With Saina Nehwal, who has been a constant on Sindhu’s career arc as a senior and a rival, failing to make the cut, the 26-year-old will be India’s sole entry in a women’s singles event at the Games. If she does end up on the podium once again, Sindhu will become the first Indian woman and only the second Indian athlete to win two Olympic medals. With the noise around the Games growing louder each day, it is impossible to ignore that there’s a strong chance that she could create history this year.
“I don’t think of it,” says Sindhu, smiling. “That’s added pressure. It’s not good carrying that on to the court. You can’t give your hundred per cent.”
As the reigning world champion, Sindhu is one of the strongest medal contenders in the women’s field. And expectations of a medal only got bigger when the three-time world champion Marin pulled out of Tokyo 2020 as she had to undergo an ACL surgery this summer.
“When you go to a tournament where Marin isn’t playing, people feel that you have to come back with the medal,” says Sindhu, ranked No 7 in the world. “But it’s not going to be easy because she isn’t there.” Standing in Sindhu’s way will be a battalion of talented women: the skillful Tai Tzu Ying (currently No 1 in the world) and Ratchanok Intanon; the excellent Japanese players Nozomi Okuhara and Akane Yamaguchi and the counterpunching brilliance of Chen Yu Fei. All of them would have, by now, digested the available data on their close rivals, devised strategies, and added new weapons to their arsenal. “When it comes to the Olympics everyone is going to be in form,” says Sindhu. “Every match is going to be tough and you need to prepare for it mentally and physically.”
This time, though, the preparation has been strikingly different from that preceding Rio. Sindhu spent the lockdown last year learning how to cook, re-learning how to paint and finding joy in simple things like spending time with her dog. As the players were grounded during the second wave of the pandemic, she has been training at Hyderabad’s Gachibowli stadium. “It is a pretty big stadium, similar to the one where the badminton event will be held in Tokyo (Musashino Forest Sports Plaza),” says Sindhu, who starts practice at seven every morning.
“I am getting used to the air-conditioning in a bigger hall; have improved my shuttle control. I train with boys from the Suchitra Academy and try to create match situations. That’s how I make sure I get used to that whole environment and it should be fine when we play the initial rounds. I don’t think lack of match play will affect me.” She last played in March, at the Swiss Open, where she fell to Marin in the final.
Another big change is the absence of long-time coach Pullela Gopichand in her corner. For the past year and a half, Sindhu has been working with South Korea’s Park Tae-sang. “I knew him because he had coached a few other teams,” says Sindhu. “But I didn’t know him well personally. Communication is very important between a coach and a player, for a coach to understand what a player is going through and what needs to be done. It took some time, but after that it was good. This period was really good for us to learn new skills and new techniques because we had enough time and didn’t have any tournaments.”
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Her new coach has encouraged Sindhu to be her own woman on the court. “The coach is always going to be there to tell you what mistakes you are making or what needs to be done,” she says. “At the same time, he’s been telling me that I also need to think on my own. Because sometimes we are in a situation where we (players) don’t listen to anybody and just play our game. When that happens, I need to know how to switch from Plan A to Plan B.” Sindhu has played over 500 pro matches in her career so far, and this experience has helped Sindhu develop the mental agility to make those necessary tweaks. But it isn’t an easy thing to do, considering the dizzying tempo of modern badminton.
“When you go to an even like the Olympics, not just me, but lots of players will be thinking I want to win that medal! It’s not over-confidence, you mind just goes there,” says Sindhu. “I definitely want to get the medal for the country. But it’s about being focused from the very first point and not think about the future. That’s why you have to be aware of what you are doing and stay in the moment. Initially even I used to do that. Sometimes you lose continuous points, sometimes you go blank. When that would happen, I had to tell myself, ‘come back,’ focus on this point. I think now I am more aware of what I’m doing, how the opponent is playing and what needs to be done.”
Sindhu has morphed into one of the best big-match Indian athletes. She has won five medals at the World Championships, two at the Asian Games, three at the Commonwealth Games. She’s also won the World Tour Finals in 2018, as well as three BWF Superseries titles. But it was the silver medal at the Olympics that catapulted her into a different league, made her believe that she belonged in rarefied company. “A lot of people, when they become successful, they think it’s over, that they have achieved everything, but I think that is where it all starts,” Sindhu says. “When you come to certain level, to maintain that, you have to work harder because everybody is going to look up to you, everyone is going to mark you as the one to beat.”
As the tallest of the top 10 ranked women in badminton at 5’10, and the brightest medal hope for her country at Tokyo 2020, Sindhu knows she has nowhere to hide.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.