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From the sparkle of Rio, PV Sindhu emerges a fully formed colossus at Tokyo

Blending method with madness, two-time Olympic medallist PV Sindhu has once again proved why she is a seasoned champion for the ages.

From the sparkle of Rio, PV Sindhu emerges a fully formed colossus at Tokyo

Gaurav Kalra

Updated: 14 Nov 2021 10:41 AM GMT

A couple of years ago, as the country celebrated PV Sindhu's triumph at the World Badminton Championships, PT Usha tweeted a picture that made us go:


The image was from 2001. Sindhu was six. She sat in the legendary athlete's lap, who had her clasped in a motherly grip. Sindhu, likely completely oblivious to the eminence of the other subject in the picture, smiled like any kid her age would. Eyes innocent, loving the attention, perhaps waiting to hop off and head towards her next adventure.

Usha, grinning from ear to ear herself in the image, later revealed that Sindhu's father Ramana and she were colleagues at Railways, and she had decided to stay with the family while in Hyderabad for a few days for an All India Railways meet.

"At that time, all I saw was this innocent, bubbly kid who was happy to play on my lap. When I left, I wished her the best," Usha told the Times of India.

When that picture was taken, it had been 17 years since the most crushing moment of Usha's otherwise decorated athletics career. At the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, Usha missed a bronze medal by one-hundredth of a second in the 400 meter hurdles. Little did she know that the cherubic kid sitting in her lap, would twenty years later be in her own battle to return from an Olympics empty handed. Or with a medal.

Yes, five years ago PV Sindhu had become India's first female athlete to win an Olympic silver medal at Rio. However, a Gold medal contest carries with it the assurance of a silver. A play-off for bronze, follows as it does with the gut-wrenching disappointment of a defeat to contend for Gold, also burdens an athlete with the demon of a stark realisation. Victory will ensure plaudits. Defeat will unleash a wave of criticism.

It was the proverbial now or never moment. Much like the friendly lady she took that picture with two decades ago, Sindhu would either return from an Olympics with a ghost that will haunt her. Or a piece of metal she will cherish forever.

In that moment, Sindhu wasn't in a very different place to Usha all those years ago – on the starting blocks of among the most significant races of her career.

Five years ago in Rio, despite her thrilling run to the final where she beat three higher ranked players and almost a fourth in the summit clash, Sindhu, by her own admission, was still very much a work in progress. Her two World Championship medals had established her credentials as a player of skill and talent, but the journey had only just begun. Rio, she hoped, would catapult her towards building a strong professional career.

Since then, the landmarks have been ticked off, one by one. Sindhu has won medals at each of the last three World Championships, including a Gold in 2019, taking her tally to an unprecedented five for an Indian player. She's won Asian and Commonwealth Games medals, Superseries events, reached multiple finals and entrenched herself in the rankings as among the leading players in the world.

Over the course of the week in Tokyo, Sindhu produced a sequence of performances that emphatically established how a fully formed player has emerged from the raw material on show at Rio. She cruised through her first four matches without dropping a game, dispatching, among others, a player who had beaten her in their last meeting and a home town star ranked higher.

In these matches, Sindhu revealed a range of stroke-making that has added lustre to her established explosive method of play. Drop shots emerged from the back of the court, her rivals repeatedly flummoxed at her ability to deftly place the shuttle at different angles in the forecourt. The polished deception on her forehand flank produced sublime flicks both cross and across court, leaving opponents unsure of the direction the shuttle was coming in. Power and nuance. Fire and Ice. Madness with method.

PV Sindhu

Trickery is one of the calling cards of the elite practitioners of this sport, and Sindhu repeatedly unveiled an unexpected counter at critical junctures of contests. Her wingspan had always been an inbuilt advantage and in Tokyo, not only did she continue to employ it as an aggressive tool, but also as a defense mechanism. On several occasions, Sindhu extended rallies that appeared settled and earned points that would otherwise fall in favour of her opponent.

In essence, Sindhu lived up to the tag of pre-event medal contender. Supremely fit and having put in the hard yards with a new coach - Korea's Park Tae-sang, she arrived in Tokyo at the peak of her powers. It took the wizardry of a rival who used a magic wand masquerading as a badminton racquet to overcome Sindhu in the semifinal. With less than a day to recover, from both the emotional scars and physical rigours of that deflating defeat, she returned to that all-or-nothing bronze medal contest against a southpaw who led their head to head comfortably.

In less than an hour, P V Sindhu had become only the second Indian athlete in history to win two individual Olympics medals.

"In Rio, there was no pressure," a visibly chirpy Sindhu would tell India Today after the victory ceremony. "Then I was a newcomer with no expectations but this was completely different because of the pressure and the responsibility."

"I just can't compare both of them because in Tokyo people were saying, 'Yes, we want this'," she added. "There's a lot of responsibility about playing for your country, and yourself. So it is a lot. But I just kept calm and composed and got that medal back."

So ends another sojourn for this remarkable young athlete, only for another to begin. Inevitably, talk of a third shot at the elusive Gold in three years in Paris, when she won't be 30 yet, has already begun. For now though, it's time to put the feet up for a bit and bask in the well-deserved adulation that awaits her.

Perhaps, when the noise settles and there is time to catch a breath, PV Sindhu and PT Usha can recreate that picture from twenty years ago? And maybe, just for the sake of that frame, they could hold up this hard earned bronze together?


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