It was one of the most stunning upsets in badminton this year. Li Xuerui, reigning All England, Asian and Olympic champion, beaten by rising Indian talent PV Sindhu in the quarterfinals of the China Masters – it’s a feat that will evoke wonders across the world.
A day later, on Saturday, Sindhu proved the win was no fluke as she came within a heartbeat of upsetting another top Chinese player, Jiang Yanjiao. The Chinese world No.9 was stretched all the way before prevailing 21-10 14-21 21-19.
That Sindhu was an exceptional talent was without doubt even in her sub-junior days. With Saina showing the way, everyone assumed it would be a matter of time before Sindhu began emulating the feats of her senior compatriot. What nobody foresaw was how quickly she would rise. With her performance at the China Masters, Sindhu has now presented Indian fans with a prospect that was unthinkable just five years ago: two Indian women in the top ten. Who would’ve foreseen this fantastic possibility?
The graph has been rising even more rapidly than anyone anticipated. She had a fabulous 2011 – winning the Maldives International, the Indonesia International, the Swiss International, and the Tata Open, while making the semifinals of the Asian Youth Championships.
But it was at the India Open earlier this year that we saw her potential at the elite level. She downed (current No.12) Tai Tzu Ying of Taipei in the first round, and then shocked (current No.8) and sixth seed Sung Ji Hyun of Korea in the second. In the quarterfinals, she put fourth seed Jiang Yanjiao of China through a wringer before losing in three tough games. It was her breakthrough moment.
At the Asian Youth Championships she became the first Indian to take the title.
Sindhu’s most obvious advantage is her height. Her lanky frame and long limbs helps her cover the court with ease, while her sharp clips and attacking smashes carry plenty of sting. She also seems immune to pressure, and that is a quality that has long impressed junior coaches.
“I’ve never seen her crumble under pressure,” says U Vinod, coach at the Padukone Academy. “Probably that is because she has played so many events at each junior tournament. She used to play the singles and doubles in two or three age categories, and I’ve never seen her fall to pressure.”
Can Sindhu become the next Saina Nehwal? To be sure, Sindhu is a different player. While Saina is a counter-puncher, Sindhu is capable of creating more openings with her variations, and she has to expend lesser energy because of her reach. However, as she goes up the ladder, she will find that it gets ever more difficult. Her videos will be analysed; flaws underlined. She will have to learn to play under greater scrutiny.
She has so far fulfilled every prediction about her ability. Time will tell if she can match or even go better than Saina. But then, time’s on her side. She’s only 17.