World Champion P V Sindhu was a brute presence as she stood atop the podium in Basel this August. Having swept through her Japanese rival Nozomi Okuhara in just over 37 minutes in one of the most one-sided scores in the history of the tournament, the Indian’s mastery and her technical superiority were all too visible. As the India arched, jumped, fell, leapt and attacked the backline and the deep corners, stealing games away from Okuhara, the fabulous-ness of Sindhu came to the fore.
Cut forward four months later, and the Hyderabadi is a forlorn figure from the one who had scaled all summits. Dejected, with sweaty beads pouring down her forehead - not due to fatigue as much as exasperation - Sindhu could just conjure up a wry smile as she won her last match of 2019 against He Bing Jiao at the World Tour Finals in China. The moments after the high of the singles gold had been turbulent, as she reached the quarters in just one of the seven competitions that she participated in since then.
Schedule, pressure and a departure
After the presenter had wrapped up his regulation questions following the World Championship finals, Sindhu was quick to add in a few words of appreciation for her new coach Korea’s Kim Ji Hyun, who had joined the Indian earlier this year. Kim had not only been attributed to armouring the 24-year old’s game with more power but had overall made Sindhu’s game more precise and sharper. Going beyond mere imperious, there was a lot more thinking in how the Indian tackled her points, and thus, it would have come as a huge blow when Kim had to resign with less than a year to go for the Olympics after her husband suffered a stroke.
Since then, Park Tae Sang has been helping Sindhu polish her defence. The 5 feet 8 inches tall player has always boasted of a strong attacking game but has struggled against the downward strokes. The “stop-and-play” tactic is being incorporated into her game as well and she has been perfecting her deceptive smashes. These changes, along with the hectic schedule seems to have caught up on Sindhu, who has been moving slower and missing simple hits in her recent matches.
At the World Tour Finals, her fatigue was only further accentuated as she was called for a late-night dope test before her match against Chen Yu Fei. Sindhu played 14 BWF World Tour events this year besides the World Championship, a requirement of the BWF (the top-15 have to play a minimum of 12 tournaments), which is anything but an easy routine.
"Sindhu's had a tough schedule after the World Championships," Pullela Gopichand had said. "A lot of players have been finding it difficult because of the schedule and a lot of players have not been doing the best in these tournaments because of the schedule."
Gopichand’s statement might be true to an extent. Of the eight women’s singles shuttlers playing in the year-ending World Tour Final, only Tai Tzu Ying and Chen Yu Fei played lesser events than Sindhu this year. Fei played 13 events, winning six medals in 2019, and never lost in the finals this season. Ying won three events, but the win percentage of the players who played more tournaments was lesser. Ongbamrungphan and Okuhara failed to win a Tour event this year - both played more tournaments than Sindhu, while He Bingjiao won one tournament. Ratchanok Intanon and Akane Yamaguchi too reached the quarters and the semis more than they reached the finals. Japan’s Yamaguchi fell from being the number two ranked women’s player in the world in July to be ranked four currently, after she failed to reach the finals of any competition since the Japan Open in July.
However, it is not that Sindhu has been outplayed in all her encounters. She is taking games close, sending down searing smashes and has been putting up fights. Since her gold medal-winning feat in Switzerland, Sindhu has lost a match in three games seven times with the average matches that she has lost lasting 67.57 minutes. Her wins, on the other hand, have been relatively more clinical - it has taken her around 38 minutes to brush aside her opponents in the said interim. Not giving up easily despite a heavy year on the road, taking the game close in addition to the physical training being done behind the scenes for the Olympics is never an easy task for any sportsman, and while the results may not have been in Sindhu’s favour this year, the effort has well been there.
Looking forward to 2020
Managing the workload will top the priority list for Sindhu and the other badminton players around the world in the first year of the next decade. As the big ‘O’ dawns upon us in Tokyo in August, preparations will be heightened, fitness levels will be tested and injury risks will be at an all-time high. Managing the expectations will be a mental battle, but as far as Sindhu is concerned, trust her to revel when under the pump.
Much like legends, the right-hander has the knack of taking her game a notch higher in big events as the expectant eyes are peering at her. In 2015, a year before the Rio Olympics where she had won silver, Sindhu had a record of 40-19. The following year, till the multi-national event, her win-loss record was 23-13. This year as well, Sindhu had one of her worst starts on the circuit before the World Championship, reaching only one final in the Indonesia Open, but ensured that she put all her troubles and her struggles aside to reinvent herself when the big stage arrived.
And this is why it is hard to fathom Sindhu’s recent run and it’s co-relation with her performance in the 2020 Tokyo Games. If anything, she has only proven that the lower she falls, the higher she rises back up.