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Paris 2024: Why PV Sindhu is still a strong medal hopeful

Whilst the odds are stacked against her, the Indian could still spring a surprise at the Paris Olympics.

Paris 2024: Why PV Sindhu is still a strong medal hopeful

PV Sindhu will be chasing a hat-trick of Olympic medals at the Paris 2024. (FILE PHOTO)


Sudipta Biswas

Updated: 8 July 2024 11:27 AM GMT

In 2016, when the Rio Olympics was approaching, hopelessness caught up with the Indian fans. The country's strongest medal hope in badminton, eminent shuttler Saina Nehwal, saw a slump in her form following a knee injury that put her under the knife.

But sometimes the most remarkable thing happens unexpectedly, leaving the millennials euphoric.

PV Sindhu, still a relatively unconvincing player in the annals of world badminton then despite breaking into the top 10 of BWF World Rankings, danced around the court and outfoxed her opponents, bringing home a silver medal.

It was the best performance by any Indian athlete in Rio de Janeiro.

By winning a medal in her maiden Olympics, Sindhu attained national fame and became the cynosure of the nation.

That Olympic medal was not a fluke, she proved it by clinching the China Open Superseries, one of the most prestigious titles on the BWF circuit, later that year.

Sindhu, only the second Indian athlete to win two individual medals at the Olympics, is now set for her third successive appearance at the Olympic Games in Paris this year.

Wading through testing time

Unlike the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 when the nation soared in confidence whenever Sindhu, the reigning world champion, walked onto the court, things are much different this time.

Doubts have been cast on her medal pursuit as she is no longer in the top ten of the BWF World Rankings.

Sindhu, the World No. 12, has been without a title for more than two years now. The last time she won a BWF World Tour title was in July 2022 at the Singapore Open.

A quick glimpse into her performance in 2022 would demonstrate how formidable Sindhu was on the World Tour before injury curtailed her dream run.

She was a title contender in every event, won three titles and made it to the semifinals four times, marking it her best season on the BWF World Tour.

But an ankle injury sustained during her maiden Commonwealth Games gold medal-winning spell in Birmingham saw her form slump, resulting in a drop in the pecking order of world badminton.

She would suffer another injury, to her knee, at the French Open in 2023, further denting her efforts to reach the peak of her form.

The last two years have been taxing for Sindhu. She has been inconsistent and has lost in the early rounds in 16 events.

Twice, she reached the final, and on each occasion, finished second best.

The odds were against the Indian. There were frustrating moments for her when her intent to fight through the difficult stages did not yield success.

Her struggle to finish matches, even from winning position in the decider, and losing steam near the end has become her biggest headache.

For instance, at the Malaysia Masters final, this year, she lost steam in a 69-minute contest and failed to close out a gruelling three-gamer against Wang Zhi Yi.

Even in India's historic Badminton Asia Team Championships triumph in Shah Alam, Malaysia in February, Sindhu, the senior most member of the team, on her comeback trail, looked unconvincing. She lost twice against Han Yue and Aya Ohori, who beat the Indian for the first time.

In recent times, such losses have become commonplace in Sindhu's career.

She lost in three-game contests in the semifinal in two consecutive events at the Arctic Open and Denmark Open in 2023, to Carolina Marin and Wang respectively.

Her track record against the top five of the world has not been encouraging either.

She last beat Marin in 2018 and Chen Yufei in 2019, while World No. 1 An Se Young has been unbeaten against Sindhu in seven meetings.

Despite her questionable form, Sindhu still commands huge respect and admiration from her opponents. Considering her stature and ability to pull off stunning results at the Olympics, nobody would dare to call her off.

"You cannot judge any player from the results of the last 6-7 months." Nehwal, the 2012 London Olympics bronze medalist, professed recently.

There is logic and reasoning to her expression.

Saving the best for majors

Throughout Sindhu's career, she has been a surprise package at the World Championships and the Olympics.

In 2013, when Sindhu won the first of her five World Championships medals beating two Chinese players en route, she ended India's 30-year wait for a medal at the prestigious event. She did not even reach a single Superseries final, the predecessor of the World Tour, before the Championships.

Her only notable performance prior to that was winning the Asian Junior Championships gold, taking down Japan's Nozomi Okuhara in a thrilling final in 2012.

Sindhu has four more World Championships medals - a bronze, two silver and gold - to show from her five appearances since 2013. In fact, her five medals at the World Championships make up almost one-third of India's total tally of 14.

At the same time, she is only the second women's singles player to win five medals in the tournament's history. China's Zhang Ning is the first woman to achieve the feat between 2001 and 2007.

Interestingly enough, Sindhu did not win a single title in 2018 on the BWF World Tour, but ended the season on a high, by claiming the elite season-ending eight-player BWF World Tour Finals crown. She would then directly clinch the World Championships gold in Basel in 2019.

PV Sindhu is the only Indian shuttler to win the prestigious BWF World Tour Finals.

Similarly, in the run-up to the Rio Olympics, Sindhu had barely one title to her credit. She won the Malaysia Masters and did not progress beyond quarterfinal in other events.

Not much was expected from Sindhu. India was rather disappointed with the form of Saina, the best Indian shuttler at the time.

At Rio, Saina was a shadow of her former self. Her charisma was gone, and she was tamed in the third round by an unheralded Maria Ulitina of Ukraine.

When everyone gave up hope, Sindhu, the 21-year-old, pulled off surprise after surprise by taking down renowned players like Tai Tzu Ying, Wang Yihan and Okuhara, all in straight games.

As Sindhu rose in confidence, her Indian fans also started believing in her. She would eventually finish runner-up to Carolina Marin in a remarkable final in what is still termed one of the best-ever finals in the history of the Olympics.

Still a threat...

The obvious question that often gets asked is why Sindhu is so consistent at major events.

Planning and preparations long before the tournament have always been the key to Sindhu's success in multi-sport events.

In her formative days, Pullela Gopichand, Sindhu's former coach, forced her to come out of her comfort zone, making her train early in the morning and forcing her to achieve what the coach desired to instil in her game.

The noise surrounding Sindhu was cut out as well. The phone was taken away and her social media interactions in the build-up to the Rio Olympics were stopped.

The idea was to channel her concentration on the game and condition her mind for the Games. It paid the dividends.

But this time, Gopichand is no longer with Sindhu.

In November 2023, with success far from her reach, she left Hyderabad and moved to Bengaluru to train under legendary Prakash Padukone.

A noble effort has been made to put her through the rigour of hard training.

The move would see Padukone sitting on the sidelines of Sindhu's matches in England, for the first time after 25 years at the All England Open in Birmingham. But Sindhu was blown away by An Se Young in the second round in straight games.

There were also narrow losses, with Sindhu visibly losing steam, struggling to execute her regular strokes and finish the match off in the third game. It prompted Padukone to point to Sindhu's fitness level.

"She is at her ideal weight now, but still needed work on body fat percentage, peak power and muscle mass," Padukone had said, demanding a Rio-level fitness from Sindhu.

Though Sindhu managed to break her final jinx at the Malaysia Masters - her first since the Madrid Spain Masters in 2023 - she fell short in the summit clash. Pushed to the distance in three matches prior to the final, her fitness level was tested. That the final also went to the decider, did not help her cause.

The positive thing is that she took the lesson from her tumultuous Asia tour and applied that to her training in her base camp in Saarbrucken, Germany, to finetune her game under the gaze of her foreign coach Agus Dwi Santoso.

A team of 12 experts - Padukone, Agus, two assistant coaches, two physios, one strength and conditioning expert and five sparring partners - has been helping her since June 15 at the German industrial town.

All efforts have been made to keep her fresh and help her recover quickly after training.

"I have learnt to be a lot more patient, especially from the Asian circuit before this Olympics. There would be no more short duration matches, no more expectation of easy points and no match being considered over, despite having a big lead, till the match is actually won,” Sindhu said recently.

From the rawness of Rio to the maturity of Tokoyo to the uncertainty of Paris, Sindhu's career stands at a tight spot. She now faces the uphill task of evincing she is not done and dusted with badminton.

Sindhu knows it will not be easy for her in Paris. The situation and context are different this time.

At the Rio Olympics, she was a promising youngster who took the world by surprise with her stunning performances. At the Tokyo Olympics, she was the reigning world champion and one of the pre-Olympics favourites.

PV Sindhu made two runner-up finishes in the last two years on the BWF World Tour.

"I cannot do what I did in those two editions. I know all eyes will be on me. I need to be smarter and have to have a plan B. I should know that it is not going to be any easy matches for sure," she observed.

Even though Sindhu does not have anything to show to her credit besides two seasons of struggles before Paris 2024, one cannot still rule her out of medal contention, given her proven track record on major events.

For all that, Sindhu will be tested in a highly competitive field, where there are no clear favourites this time.

But since players like Tai Tzu Ying, Akane Yamaguchi, Marin and even An Se Young have been struggling with injuries and post-surgical comebacks of their own, a fit Sindhu is unlikely to wobble in front of higher-ranked opponents. Things will also depend on how she adapts to the drift at Porte de La Chapelle Arena and how things pan out in Paris for everyone else.

Currently, Sindhu is busy getting herself ready for the big battles, and her focus is on adding more variations to her strokes, improving speed, fine-tuning techniques and getting her plan B ready.

Work is also being done on her mental health and body to help her stay in the fight till the very end of the match.

The belief is that this articulate planning and preparations will help Sindhu regain her mojo.

But the doubt remains, as no shuttler has won more than two medals at the Olympics.

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