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Badminton

BAC is around, when will PV Sindhu look out of the woods?

With the Paris Olympics just three months away, the Badminton Asia Championships in China give PV Sindhu the best chance to be out of the woods.

PV Sindhu Badminton
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PV Sindhu is set to return to the court at the Malaysian Masters 2024 (File Photo)

By

Sudipta Biswas

Updated: 9 April 2024 2:24 PM GMT

No BWF World Tour title in her cabinet since July 2022, and frustration has been mounting up as success is hard to come by. Wins that once looked imminent are now a distant dream. The optimism around her faded, and now her fans fret whenever she goes up against a seeded player.

As desired results looked improbable, PV Sindhu, India's highest-ranked women's singles player, broke loose and flung the racket onto the Centro Deportivo Municipal Gallur court in Madrid last month.

It was enough to make anyone nervous.

Injuries can take the best out of a great player; it often ruins a promising career. Despite putting up her best efforts, including a move to Bengaluru from Hyderabad to train under legendary Prakash Padukone, Sindhu has so far not yielded any positive results.

Sindhu's is not a promising career, she has achieved enough to attain a legendary status and to become one of the Badminton World Federation's Hall of Famers.

But of late, she is a shadow of her past.

With losses piling up, self-doubt tends to creep into one's mind.

A player, who was once so consistent and formidable that she was always in the thick of action and considered one among the title contenders, has become a first and second-round player.

An immediate glimpse into Sindhu's performance trajectory before the ankle injury she sustained at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022 will give us a sneak peek into the telling impact she exerted on the World Tour.

In 2022 itself, she made four semifinal finishes, and won the Swiss Open and Singapore Open, besides winning the maiden CWG gold. The year before, displaying her sheer consistency at the most elite event for any sport - the Olympics - she won her second medal at the prestigious Games. No other Indian athlete has ever won the Olympic medal twice in the individual category.

Sindhu might not have attained the sheer success of Saina Nehwal on the Super Series, the predecessor of the World Tour, but she belonged to that exclusive league of champions, who won multiple World Championships medals. Sindhu's achievements included two runner-up finishes in 2017 and 2018 before she finally clinched the coveted gold in 2019 in Basel.

Before the injury, which has become more common nowadays for 28-year-old, she never faced a situation where her opponent was ahead of her with numerous match points.

But that is the thing now happening with Sindhu, more often. At the Madrid Spain Masters final, left-handed Supanida Katethong, whom the Indian beat at the Badminton Asia Team Championships, took the lead against Sindhu. Even though the Indian staged a comeback, she failed to win the title.

The Thai shuttler squandered five chances to win the opening game, then saw Sindhu sensationally taking a 10-5 lead before succumbing to her errors to lose a thriller 24-26, 21-17, 22-20 in 77 minutes.

Sindhu will have her task cut out at the Badminton Asia Championships (BAC). The majority of the world's top players, including world no.1 An Se Young, Olympic gold medallist Chen Yufei, willy Tai Tzu Ying, Akane Yamaguchi and He Bingjiao will be vying for the women's singles title at the BAC.

Sindhu begins her campaign on Wednesday against Goh Jin Wei, a player who defeated the Indian at the Sudirman Cup last year. If Sindhu overcomes Jin Wei, she might run into Han Yue, against whom she has an advantage of a 5-0 record.

But Sindhu's main challenge might come in the quarterfinal where she is likely to face either crafty Ratchanok Intanon or former world no. 1 Yamaguchi, a player who beat Sindhu in their both meetings in 2023 at the Singapore Open and Canada Open. The last time, Sindhu beat Yamaguchi was in 2022.

Though Sindhu's qualification to the Paris Olympics was never in doubt since no other female Indian player was close to challenging her monopoly in Indian badminton, Sindhu's inability to finish close matches might come back to haunt her in Ningbo, China, the host of the BAC.

Her 0-7 record against top-seeded and reassuring favourite Young will not help her either. Since her emergence in the senior circuit in 2017, the Korean has been a puzzle for Sindhu, even when she was at the peak of her form.

She could not negotiate the challenge thrown at her by Young. To date, Sindhu, who hardly got a chance to unleash her attacking game against Young, managed to take just one game off Young in their seven meetings.

Young does not possess any formidable smashes, yet she punished Sindhu with her unceasing rallies at the All England Open last month, and that left the Indian bone-tired. After staying in the fight for most of the first game, Sindhu looked crestfallen in the second game as Young was left with nine match points to extend her head-to-head record over Sindhu.

Making it worse, she started looking vulnerable against the left-handed players. A recent trend that laid bare her weakness against southpaws.

Besides Katethong, Aya Ohori tasted her first win against the Indian shuttler at the BATC in February.

With more players finding it easy to tackle her, emerging players like Putri Kusuma Wardani, another left-handed warhorse on the World Tour, would pose an immense challenge to Sindhu.

Aparna Popat would point out the missing element in Sindhu's game - the variations - that took the sharpness off her game.

“Sindhu most of the time prefers to go cross from the net. Instead of going to the overhead or backhand side of a righty that will cramp them, that now goes to the forehand side of the lefty. And more often than not, I am not quite sure why, a lefty’s forehand side is very strong," explained Popat.

While Sindhu has her left-handed syndrome to address in the important Olympic year, she also has to find an answer to her struggle against elite players.

Moreover, Sindhu has been under scrutiny because of her contemporaries, who have been taking on the players of this generation regularly.

30-year-old former Olympic champion Carolina Marin won the All England Open, taking down Yamaguchi in the final, and the Swiss Open this year, making a strong case for herself ahead of the Olympics.

Likewise, the queen of deception Tai Tzu Ying is going all the way to stake a claim on the World Tour. The 29-year-old has been regularly giving a run for the money to Young, undoubtedly the most consistent player. Most recently, at the French Open where Tai gave a scare to the Korean before losing a thrilling three-gamer in the semifinal.

Sindhu's problem lies perhaps in her fitness as her reaction remained slow on the court, and her opponent often left her stunned with crosscourt smashes and wristy flicks to which Sindhu did not dare to stretch her knee. That intuitive flex returns are also missing from her game.

Padukone did not hide his frustration in his circle, as he demanded more time from Sindhu in the gym and the court.

Age remains on her side, and Sindhu can still be a tormentor just as she did to Michelle Li and Beiwen Zhang at the French Open, winning two back-to-back sapping three-gamers after losing the opening game.

But against in-form and consistent performers, she has to conjure up confidence just as she needs to make her defence unbreachable to stand a chance to recoup her place in the top echelon of women's singles.

The BAC in China will give her the best chance to be out of the woods, with most of the world's top players around before the Paris Olympics.

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