2016 was a great year for Sindhu, but it is just the beginning. With Saina Nehwal making a strong comeback from injury, 2017 may see two Indian women dominating world women's badminton
P. V. Sindhu is a good girl. Anyone who has known her knows this about her: She is quiet, shy, self-effacing, impeccably polite and thoughtful.
Her Twitter feed is full of photos of her beaming—with babies, with dogs, because she is excited that there is snow falling, and increasingly since that Olympic medal, fashion shoots for magazines. In every single shot, there is that radiant, full smile. It’s as if she knows no other state of being; in one Instagram post, she says “smiles are free but they are worth a lot".
To the flood of congratulatory messages she gets, she unfailingly replies with a “thank you sir", or a “thank you ma’am". She wishes her coach and mentor, Pullela Gopi Chand, on Teachers’ Day.
The recently retired Wang Yihan, Saina Nehwal’s tormentor-in-chief (Yihan’s record against Nehwal is 11-5), whom Sindhu beat in the 2016 Olympic quarter-finals en route to her silver, is her “dear friend"; they hug and smile and pose together for a selfie.
What about anger?
“Sometimes I get a little angry when I lose a point," she says; then she laughs.
Back in 2013, just a year after Sindhu, then 18 years old, had begun to make inroads into international badminton, Gopi Chand decided enough was enough. The good girl stuff is great, but it needed to stay off the court.
Gopi Chand wanted her to scream. Scream if she won a point. Scream if she lost a point. Find her lungs. Dig for some anger.
At the courts at the Gopichand Badminton Academy, he stood across the net and put Sindhu through a rigorous session. “Shout!" he told her, when she had sent a solid smash down the line. Sindhu looked away. “Shout!" he told her when she failed to pick up a drop shot. No response.
“I stopped everyone else who was practising in the hall that day," Gopi Chand says. “And I told her, ‘If you don’t shout, no one else will practice.’" Sindhu, lips still firmly shut, tried not to look at the 30-odd players standing around and looking at her. Her eyes welled up.
“I started crying," she says. “But I just could not shout!"
Gopi Chand had known for a few years that Sindhu was an exceptional talent, that after Saina Nehwal, she would be the next big thing in Indian badminton. Sindhu has proved him right. She got straight into the groove in the big league. In 2012, her debut year at the top level, she was still playing at Under-19 tournaments, but she was also doing things like beating China’s Li Xuerui, the 2012 Olympic gold medallist, at the China Masters. Then, in 2013, she won India’s first medal in women’s singles, a bronze, at the BWF World Championships. In the semi-final, she lost to another 18-year-old, Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon, without making any noise at all.
So now she needed to shout. Gopi Chand was sure of it. There was, under the fuzzy layers of this ever-smiling girl, a tough, steely woman he needed to coax out. Sindhu didn’t shout that day. But the next day she did.
“It was not very loud, or aggressive," Gopi Chand says, “but it was a beginning."
It is still work-in-progress, even after she made history at Rio this year as the first Indian woman to win an individual silver medal at the Olympics.
During the semi-final, Gopi Chand had to tell her: “Finish the first game, throw a punch in the air, shout. Finish the second game, lift your hands up in the air, shout."
He had his own demons haunting him. “At the 2000 Olympics, I was sure I would win a medal, and then I didn’t," Gopi Chand says. “I was messed up after that, I was so hurt that I did not know what I was doing for three-four months after that. I thought, let that not happen here." But he could not let this show, it would only bring Sindhu down. So he clutched his notebook, filled with game strategies and little phrases that are meant to focus his player’s mind in the middle of the chaotic flurry of the game; phrases like “I am rock solid" or “Nobody can defeat me". During breaks in the game, he showed these words to Sindhu. Sindhu pursed her lips, nodded. She was a vision in a yellow dress, graceful, effortless, feather-touched with her drop shots, whiplash-strong with her smashes. She won the semi-final, she lifted her hands in the air, she shouted.
The final, of course, was a scream-fest. Spain’s Carolina Marin is a warrior on court the way few women in badminton are—she shrieked with each point she won the way some scream when they win a Grand Slam, punching the air ferociously.
Sindhu could neither keep up with the aggression, nor the skills of Marin.
When the Spaniard won and collapsed on the court, Sindhu picked her up and hugged her. Then, while walking back to her corner, she reflexively picked up Marin’s racket, which Marin had flung in celebration, and put it back on her bag. I bet you Sindhu is the rare Indian who does not litter, and follows traffic rules, and stands patiently in queues.
The reason for recalling this past great year of Sindhu’s is to point out something that should be pretty apparent to anyone who watched her play at Rio. She may have two world championship bronzes and she may be the first Indian woman to win a silver at the Olympics, but it is just the beginning for her.
“She is still very much a work-in- progress," Gopi Chand says. “You see it’s only been a couple of years since she stopped growing. Now height is both an advantage and a disadvantage—it gives you reach, but also it’s more difficult to be agile and strong. When you are growing, it is very difficult to develop strength, it’s only now that she is at her full height that we can really go hard at developing her strength.
“The same height thing is also important when it comes to court coverage," Gopi Chand adds. “You have to reach your full height to really start understanding your relationship with the court space, and then you can keep improving it. That’s the stage we are at right now."
Basically, expect Sindhu to win everything in the next couple of years, if she can remain injury-free.
Talking of injuries, Saina Nehwal suddenly finds herself at the receiving end of a raw deal in terms of public perception. Because Sindhu won a silver, one better than Nehwal’s 2012 bronze, there is now a line of thinking that pits the two against each other to inevitably come to the conclusion that Nehwal is on an inexorable downward slide.
“This is totally wrong," says U. Vimal Kumar, Nehwal’s coach at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Bengaluru. “She was at the top of her game—remember that she played the All England final against Marin in 2015?—before she had a serious injury."
Yes, and she was also world No.1 that year, and won yet another Super Series title this year before the injury, which required a knee surgery and three months of rehabilitation.
“But this is one bold, strong player," Kumar says. “She was back on court much before I thought it would be possible. It is only a matter of time before she starts winning again."
Blame the contrasting styles of Sindhu and Nehwal for some of the negativity towards the former world no.1. While Nehwal’s game is full of muscle, Sindhu’s has an effortless, flowing quality to it that dazzles those who watch her play.
Yet Sindhu has plenty to learn still from Nehwal’s game. Better anticipation, for one. It makes all the difference. Watch Nehwal cover the court and Gopi Chand’s assessment of Sindhu still having to learn about her spatial relationship immediately becomes clear. In pure power too, Nehwal is ahead.
Nehwal has something to learn from Sindhu too—a more nuanced approach to the game, where power is not the primary weapon, but one of many, equally important ones, in the arsenal.
And perhaps the most important lesson Sindhu can learn from Nehwal is how to bring some anger to the court.
Either way, here’s to a new year that may see two Indian players dominating women’s badminton.