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PV Sindhu: Shuttling to success

  • PV Sindhu won the BWF World Championships in Basel
  • Sindhu defeated Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara in 38 minutes

P. V. Sindhu in action against Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara in the final of the BWF World Championships in Basel, Switzerland.
P. V. Sindhu in action against Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara in the final of the BWF World Championships in Basel, Switzerland.

It was years in the making but Pusarla Venkata Sindhu’s most defining moment yet in badminton lasted just 38 minutes.

That’s how long she took to win the final of the BWF (Badminton World Federation) World Championships in Basel last Sunday against Nozomi Okuhara—two years after her 110-minute loss to the same player in the same event in the same round. The title puts to rest doubts over Sindhu’s ability to jump the final hurdle—11 years since she turned professional, seven years after her international debut and after second-place finishes in the last two World Championships and the 2016 Olympic Games.

“If you are consistently in that space and knocking that door, it will break eventually," coach Pullela Gopi Chand said in a December 2017 interview to Mint, with memories of her silver medal from the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016 still fresh in the mind. “I am not worried about that one title as such. It’s a matter of time."

“This is my answer to the people who have asked me questions over and over. I just wanted to answer with my racket and with this win, that’s all," Sindhu said on Sunday.

For her badminton colleagues, the title seemed inevitable because Sindhu, currently ranked world No.5, has consistently been a top 10 player for the last three years and has lost a few finals by feather-thin margins.

Last year, for example, she beat Okuhara in the BWF World Tour Finals but lost to her in the Thailand Open final, lost in the Asian Games final to Tai Tzu Ying, lost to Carolina Marin in the World Championships final, to Saina Nehwal in the Commonwealth Games final, and to Beiwen Zhang in the India Open final.

For players at the top of their field, victory or defeat is subject to that given day—based on their form, their opponent’s follies, training and experience. International players compete through the year and understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses intimately. In such a competitive field, the winner is usually the one who peaks at the right time.

“You have to give credit to her consistency," says Parupalli Kashyap, a former top 10 player and fellow trainee at the Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad. “You need to peak at the right time. She has been able to keep her mind and body in a state where she has figured how to do that and get over fatigue at the right time."

There is also a factor of providence in the results. At Basel last week, world No.1 and tournament favourite Akane Yamaguchi inexplicably lost in the round of 32 to a 20-year-old, 28th-ranked player from Singapore, Yeo Jia Min. Though Sindhu has a 10-6 win-loss record against Yamaguchi, the Japanese player has won their last two encounters.

Sindhu beat world No.3 Tai Tzu Ying, in a closely fought quarter-final match that could have gone either way at 19-19 in the final game. Before her consecutive victories (in Basel and in Guangzhou in December), Sindhu had lost six games on the trot to Tzu Ying. Rio Olympic gold medallist Carolina Marin, one of Sindhu’s most difficult opponents, did not play the tournament owing to a knee injury.

In Sunday’s one-sided final, Sindhu used her advantage of height (she is almost 5ft, 11 inches) to score powerful smashes at an angle that proved difficult for the Japanese player. Her training showed in her fluid, effortless movements. “She has clearly done a lot of core work," analysed 2008 Olympian Anup Sridhar in The Indian Express. “That power is definitely core and her legs, arms and back are all a lot stronger, that’s where all the power is coming from."

In her post-match on-court interview, Sindhu also credited her coach Kim Ji Hyun, who joined the academy in March.

The Korean had told the BWF website ahead of the World Championships that Sindhu needed to develop more skills. “The way she plays, I feel it’s not smart enough," Kim said. “At the top level, you have to be smart.... There are so many skills she has to work on, especially net skills and deception."

Sindhu is already among the top five earners among Indian sportspeople—she has about 14 sponsorship deals worth approximately 40 crore, including a four-year, 50 crore endorsement with Chinese sports brand Li-Ning. She is also 13th in Forbes’ 2019 list of highest-paid female athletes in the world. Another big signing, which was agreed upon a few months ago, will be announced soon.

“She has always been an established brand," says R. Ramakrishnan, co-founder and director of Baseline Ventures, which manages her. “This (win) is more of a reminder—it refreshes memory, reinforces her credibility and gives us organic PR."

But he recommends caution. “Firstly, let the euphoria die. Once all of us reach equilibrium, we would know its (the win’s) true value. Right now, it’s like the stock market."

While any big achievement brings attention to the sport, there is no certainty of long-term impact. Success inspires and competition makes players aware that there are others who are capable of doing better, Gopi Chand had said in the December 2017 interview. “If you beat a player, others training with you think they can beat that player too. A quarter-final suddenly doesn’t feel good enough," he had said.

“All the top players have been consistent. That’s not an issue," adds Kashyap. “For Indian badminton—I might sound pessimistic here—this win will not make much of a change. If we want to dominate world badminton, we need to set in place better systems than the current ones. What we have done in 10 years is remarkable. We are growing in numbers but don’t have the support for the numbers."

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

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