In a country starved of Olympic champions, P. V. Sindhu’s dream campaign in Rio provided a whiff of fresh air. Came as it did, after trailblazer Saina Nehwal paid heavily for carrying a knee injury to the Games, Sindhu made the nation sit up and take note of her extraordinary prowess.
In the space of 18 hours, after Sakshi Malik ended India’s medal drought with a bronze in women’s wrestling, Sindhu made history by reaching the singles final. Up against two-time World champion and favourite Carolina Marin in the battle for the gold medal, Sindhu once again showed her never-say-die attitude by bouncing back from 16-19 to snatch the first game, but thereafter, it was the Spaniard who gave very little away.
Besides the result, what stood out during that week was the manner in which Sindhu played. Moving steadily towards becoming a more all-round player, Sindhu gave ample evidence of being hell-bent on shedding the tag of an ‘inconsistent’ performer.
Though Sindhu has beaten all the leading players at least twice, she is yet to stitch together a string of victories in a Super Series competition.
In Rio, match after match, Sindhu produced exemplary performances against higher-ranked rivals in the knockout phase. With the advantage of hindsight, it can safely be said that Sindhu’s three-game victory over Canada’s Hong Kong-born Michelle Li to reach the pre-quarterfinal was the turning point. After all, Michelle beat Sindhu twice in the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games. Though Sindhu had emerged stronger in their previous clash at the German Open in March, she was obviously not done with Michelle.
The three-game victory over Michelle seemed to have taken the load off Sindhu. Her body and mind were ready to take on the tougher challenges ahead. She played more freely. The way Sindhu carried herself on the court gave the impression that she owned the arena. The growing self-belief was all too evident.
She was raring to go, ready to fight hard and long. What more, she was prepared for the ‘kill’ at the first opportunity. Sindhu’s on-court movements — despite her tall frame — to go with her new-found aggression and intensity presented a medal aspirant, who nobody had taken seriously earlier.
After all, despite being armed with two World championship medals, Sindhu remained in the shadow of Saina. But this week, she came out of it and how.
Ranked 10th in the world, and seeded ninth in Rio, Sindhu began with no expectations. But it did not take long to notice that Sindhu was ready to pull off something unprecedented.
To beat the strong and swift Chinese, one has to possess great speed and power. In Rio, Sindhu consistently packed the power that has been often missing from her game.
Going by her on-court movements, it was evident that Chief National coach P. Gopichand had focussed specially on strengthening her legs. The 21-year-old, a trainee of Gopi since she was eight, truly followed the instructions of her mentor, who is known to be a tough taskmaster.
Gopi often said: “Sindhu is not ready yet. Once she adds power to her strokes, then we can expect her to realise her true potential.” The Sindhu we saw in Rio surely resembles the one Gopi was talking about.
By beating three top-10 players, in three days, Sindhu announced to the world that she clearly belonged to the big league.
Against Tai Tzu-Ying, Sindhu produced a performance to remember. Not many may be aware, but the Chinese Taipei girl has beaten Saina in their last six encounters — stretching back to 41 months. Tai is considered a ‘tricky’ player and her deception from the forecourt is hard to catch. Her flicks across the net have caught some of the best names on the wrong foot.
But on that day, Sindhu read it all perfectly.
Up next was World No. 2 Chinese Wang Yihan, who was keen to improve upon her runner-up finish in the 2012 London Olympics. Sindhu had ended Yihan’s title-defence in the 2013 World Championship. Another big stage saw the two battle it out and Sindhu once again raised her game to meet the challenge.
Two tight games and Sindhu was through. Speed is usually considered the forte of Chinese players but it was Sindhu who moved more smoothly on the court and executed the strokes better. The conquest of Yihan meant Sindhu had scaled another peak.
Once in the semifinals, and given the form Sindhu showed, India was optimistic about a medal from the badminton arena. Sindhu’s next rival, Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara, was looking to continue the form that saw her win the 2015 Super Series Masters final and the famed All England title in March.
Against the World No. 6, Sindhu was in control. She dropped the opening point of the second game but stayed ahead until the Japanese made it 3-3. It looked close until 10-all, but thereafter, Sindhu dramatically reeled off 11 straight points to reach the final.
Losing to the best player in the world is no shame. And Sindhu did her growing reputation no harm against Marin. Much credit is due to Marin for bringing out the best in Sindhu. The left-hander, whose deception, while executing forehand overheads is yet to be sorted out by the world’s elite, shifted gears in the decider and the pace at which the rallies were played left the spectators in awe.
The country’s first silver from the Olympic badminton arena needs to be hailed. The campaign also lifted India’s morale that had hit a low after 12 medal-less days. Sakshi Malik’s bronze in wrestling and Sindhu’s silver gave the nation something to be pleased about.
What more, Sindhu was a revelation. If Saina showed the way for the past decade, Sindhu is looking ready to chart a new course in the years to come.
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