In the lobby of Hotel Ashok in New Delhi, the present and future of Indian women’s badminton stand a few metres apart. Saina Nehwal, India’s top badminton player, is heading for practice as Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, also from Hyderabad, eases herself into a sofa.
Sindhu, 15, is the top-ranked junior player in the country, with the under 10, 13, 16 and 19 national titles in her kitty. On Tuesday, she had just returned from trouncing P.C. Thulasi and Neha Pandit, older and higher-ranked Indian competitors, in the qualifying rounds of the ongoing Yonex Sunrise India Open Super Series, her maiden tournament at this level. Asked about the much higher-ranked competitor she was up against in the first round of the main draw on Wednesday, she smiled. “I don’t know much about her. Tomorrow, I’ll practise a few hours before the match and will just try to beat her. That’s all I can do.”
Tall order: Sindhu’s above-average height means she needs to pay more attention to her legs and back.
She didn’t succeed though. Sindhu, ranked 196 in the world, lost to Salakjit Ponsana, ranked 20 in the world, on Wednesday. But then, this is just the beginning of her career in the women’s league.
Sindhu’s cheerful demeanour blends perfectly with a resolve that she has inculcated over seven years of active badminton. Her father Pusarla Venkata Ramana—an Arjuna awardee for volleyball—recalls the day in 2003 when he introduced Sindhu, who had shown an interest in badminton, to former All England badminton champion Pullela Gopi Chand at a felicitation ceremony. Ramana soon got her enrolled in Gopi Chand’s badminton academy at Gachibowli in Hyderabad, driving her to and fro every day from Secunderabad.
“When I told her that she could practise at the academy for a few days a week, she started crying. I then had no option but to drive her almost 30km to the academy every day,” says Ramana. This early introduction to a demanding routine created the player she now is, helping her cope with the almost 7 hours of practice that forms the major chunk of her day.
“The present practice routine and her above-average height (5ft 11 inches) means that we have to take special care of her physical fitness. Her back and legs need more attention since she has to bend more than other players during a match,” says Mohammed Siyadath, one of Sindhu’s coaches.
Ever since she first walked into the academy, Siyadath has been aware of the special talent Sindhu possesses. The entire team, right from the physiotherapists to former players, is helping her nurture and develop her talent. Gopi Chand himself, Ramana says, never misses a single early morning session to keep track of her progress.
“I grew up watching Gopi Chand play. It was when I saw him win against the best in the world that I decided to be a badminton player myself. He and Saina always inspire me,” she says.
Gopi Chand chooses his words carefully while discussing Sindhu. “She is a great talent and while her height provides her greater reach and strength, it also tends to make her stoop at times,” he says. “If she remains as committed as she is now, she will develop into a complete player.”
As Sindhu began delivering results consistently, Ramana decided to let her stay full-time at the academy, so she could access all the benefits and specialized care that the sport requires. She has been staying there since 2005, and her nutrition and diet are now regularized for optimum performance.
Sindhu cherishes her tournament triumphs. “The first two senior ranking tournaments that I won at Bangalore (2010) and Gujarat (2011) will always stay with me because I beat players more experienced than me,” she says. Perhaps her most towering achievement yet came at last year’s Indian Grand Prix Gold event, where she reached the semi-finals before losing to Indonesia’s Fransisca Ratnasari, a player currently ranked 51 in the world.
For all her talent and achievements, though, there is still a lot of work to be done. Siyadath points to her tendency of giving away points whenever she has a comfortable lead over her opponent. But he remains eloquent about her swiftly maturing game, and is confident about her turning into the complete player that Gopi Chand too hopes she will become one day.