Not long after PV Sindhu played Carolina Marin, at the Malaysia Open last week, the hard-fought match was followed by an uncharacteristically heartfelt Instagram post from the former’s coach Park Tae-sang.
“Returned after 5 months. And unfortunate results. everyone, her lack is my fault as a coach. We will prepare for the Indian Open in Delhi next week. Please encourage @pvsindhu1 rather than reprimand. I’ll try harder.” he wrote.
Sindhu indeed had been making her return to international badminton in Kuala Lumpur last week, after a nearly half-year break following a fracture to her ankle at the Commonwealth Games last year. There was nothing easy about her return either. The luck of the draw saw her up against Rio Olympic champion Carolina Marin to whom she lost in three games.
Ahead of the India Open, Sindhu tries to give some context to Parks’ post. “After the injury coming back is a really hard thing. It’s not easy. Coach put up his feeling because last 5 months we haven’t played at all. But we should be happy we have actually played at all. Hopefully we will have good days coming soon,” she says.
India’s top ranked woman’s singles player isn’t going to be lacking in support with the international circuit now moving to New Delhi from Tuesday. For one, this is the two time Olympic medalist’s home tournament and one where she’s had success previously – she won the title in 2017. Furthermore, the 2023 edition of the tournament is being played in front of fans for the first time in three years (the 2020 and 2021 editions were cancelled due to COVID-19 pandemic while the 2022 tournament was played behind closed doors). “It is going to be exciting. There will be crowds and fans and players. I am really very excited. There are a lot of memories playing here,” Sindhu says on the eve of the tournament.
But things are getting only marginally easier on the court. That’s because the tournament will be far more competitive than it’s ever been. In the past, the India Open was a World Tour 500 event – only the fourth rung of the BWF international calendar behind the World Tour Finals, World Tour Super 1000 and World Tour Super 750. That meant that top players would often skip the competition in order to prepare for more prestigious tournaments.
This year though, the India Open has been upgraded to a Super 750 event. As a consequence, nearly every top player is showing up in New Delhi making Indian hopes all the more precarious. The men’s singles draw for instance features India’s Kidambi Srikanth, HS Prannoy and Lakshya Sen playing against Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen, Shi Yuqi and two-time World champion Kento Momota for a place in the quarterfinal.
Sindhu at least has an easier bracket if only slightly so. She faces Supanida Katethong in the first round. The Thai is that rare women’s singles player with a powerful jump smash. While she’s only ranked 21 st in the world, she’s proved to be a tricky opponent, taking the Indian to the decider in each of the three matches the two played last year while also beating her at the India Open.
Should Sindhu get past that potential banana peel, she also has a possible quarterfinal clash against Olympic champion Chen Yufei. Lurking in the same bracket and for a potential semifinal matchup is Marin. There’s no guarantee of that of course-- if Sindhu has it tough with Yufei, Marin has World Champion Akane Yamaguchi in her quarter.
Sindhu might have lost against Marin just last week, but she insists the loss hasn’t damaged her self belief. “In Malaysia when I was playing with her, I was happy that I could play my best. Coming back from injury is not easy. It takes a long time to regain the confidence to compete at that level. I was able to do that which was important. Winning and losing is a part of life but you should be satisfied with how you competed. I was happy with how I played,” she says.
Indeed even in defeat, there was plenty to be satisfied with. After losing the opening game, Sindhu had won the second. Even in the third her smashes were on point as was her back handed defence. Critically, her movement on court, wasn’t far off her best.
“Physically my fitness is good. I’m satisfied with it. I just need to get some matches,” Sindhu says.
While they both might potentially be competing for the same finals spot, the Spaniard has a lot in common with the Indian. She too is making a return from injury. Marin’s injury might be the more heart-breaking even. For while Sindhu picked up hers at the Commonwealth Games where she would still go on to win gold, Marin tore her right knees ACL -- for the second time in fact-- just prior to the Tokyo Olympics.
That she’s even tried to make a comeback, was testament to her grit. “To comeback from an ACL injury is hard. I don’t know many badminton players who have come back from two,” she admits. “But I didn’t want to give up because I have something in my mind. I want to win another medal at the Olympics,” she says.
Marin reached the quarterfinals of the Malaysia Open last week before losing to Yufei but she too can see light at the end of the tunnel. “(when I was out injured) It was tough physically but also mentally. Because even when I was practising, I was practising in pain every day. That affected me a lot. But now I feel happy because around December I didn’t have any pain. I’ve been was able to do some good practise,” she says.
And if defeat hasn’t hurt Sindhu’s self confidence, victory hasn’t let Marin relax. “Now I am looking forward to compete against any player. I feel happy with my performance but I have to keep on improving,” she says.
At the India Open, Sindhu will be hoping for the same. Like Marin, she too sees the Paris Games in the horizon. While there are no real problem areas, a strong performance in New Delhi will put her in good shape for the the qualification period for the Olympic Games will start in a few months time. “The Olympic qualification will start soon so we need to prepare accordingly,” she says.