How did PV Sindhu go where no Indian has ever gone before?

PV Sindhu is the first silver medal winner from India at the Olympics

Pluck is one of the biggest requisites to achieve something unthinkable. In the sports world, it not only imparts inner strength to an athlete to scale a seemingly insurmountable barrier but it also inspires millions watching to believe that it is possible.

PV Sindhu showed copious amounts of it on her Olympic debut to end up with the silver medal and become the first Indian to ever reach a badminton final at the mega quadrennial Games. It has always been known that she is a big match player. Her double World Championships bronze medals that she clinched under the age of 20, vindicates it. But to replicate that effort at the Olympics where pressure is humongous and nationalistic pride is at stake, is different altogether.

For all of Sindhu’s brilliance, her inability to perform at such a phenomenal level on a consistent basis has come back to haunt her multiple times. Only one Superseries final appearance at the Denmark Open which she reached last October does not do enough to justify her prodigious talent.

Dedicated badminton lovers would know how heartbreaking it had been to watch as the Indian would often unravel after building up good leads over some of the most dominant players of the sport. A sure shot win would go up in smoke as the youngster’s immaturity and recklessness would take the centre stage.

Not anymore!

At Rio, this was a different Sindhu with a renewed approach. While we were shaking our heads in despair watching her fail to go past the quarter-finals at any Superseries event this year, she had quietly been plotting with her mentor Pullela Gopichand one of the biggest coups in the history of Olympics badminton.

The meticulous preparation

For three months, she was denied any access to her phone or social media. Her father PV Ramana, an Asian Games bronze medal-winning volleyball player, opted for eight months leave from the Railways to specially help her build on her mental fortitude.

As senior journalist TS Sudhir has revealed in Firstpost, a weight trainer and a physical fitness expert were added to the 21-year-old’s team to aid her in conquering the sport’s highest peak. Gopichand, the hard taskmaster that he is, left no stone unturned. He even incorporated his 11-year-old son Vishnu in this closely-knit team to be her practice partner during the early morning dribbles.

A change in attitude

No wonder when the World No. 10 arrived at Rio, she was in a zone of her own. Behind the facade of an Olympic debutante was a lionheart dreaming big and unafraid of taking on the steep challenges. For the 10 days of competition, her singular focus was on the medal, for what she has spent 13 years of her life practising.

Her ranking of 10 was just a number for this Hyderabad girl. She did not care that her path to the summit clash in the knock-out rounds would be dotted with four top-10 players each of whom had a winning head-to-head record over her.

Unperturbed, Sindhu was charting her own course to immortality. You could feel she was there for it.

She would give it whatever it takes. When her face, contorted with emotion, beamed on every sports page, you could see how much she wanted it. The unquenched thirst for success filled every fibre of her body – an essential ingredient of any success story in sports.

Sindhu was not the chirpy young girl who had just left her teenage years. She was all grown up overnight thanks to her sheer ambition. The flight of the shuttle that she had been so enamoured with as a kid that she embraced the sport to be her lifelong partner, had brought her this far – on the cusp of history.

This was a new Sindhu transformed by the burning desire to bring glory to her motherland. Even if it meant that she had to venture into areas that she had never explored before, she would do it.

For the less-expressive girl, if a scream was required to match her opponent’s intimidating screams, she would go for it. World No. 1 Carolina Marin saw that in the final. The brazen boldness that she put up in front of the two-time world champion was enough to rattle the Spaniard for long parts of the 80-minute clash. So much so that the world’s best player was blown away 19-21 in the first game even after leading 19-16 at one stage.

A highly improved defense

As much as Sindhu’s aggression has always been one of her biggest assets, her defence had long been her Achilles heel. Many a time it had not been able to give her the cushion she needed to protect her leads.

The All England Open champion Nozomi Okuhara had been one of those rivals who had been perfectly exploiting this weakness of Sindhu for quite some time, having scored 3 wins out of four meetings prior to the Olympics. A look at those scorelines suggests a pattern of Sindhu losing in three games to the Japanese and that too, by a huge margin in the decider.

When they met in the semi-finals of Rio, the tables were turned by the Indian in straight games. All the long hours that she had put in with her physical fitness trainer to be able to sustain the high energy levels in long, demanding rallies and the humid conditions paid off. She was put to the test by the World No. 6 once again who moved her all over the court with the hope of tiring her out.

But the 5’11’’ Sindhu stood tall and resolute, braving all the pounding. Her improved defense sparkled and she did not crack like before. Most importantly, she wore belief on her sleeve.

When Okuhara ran out of options, the Indian came hard back at her. With the preserved energy, she scripted one of the greatest counterattacks ever witnessed on the badminton court. A 10-point blitzkrieg in the second game was all it took to clip Okuhara’s wings and down she crashed to the ground.

Sindhu played like someone possessed, shutting out every object out of her mind. She was in that sphere where even the frenetic exhortations of her coach and the endless applause from the crowd did not ring in her ears. Those 10 points will always remain the best uninterrupted display of Sindhu’s attacking prowess and a reminder to motivate her in the future whenever she needs it.

A newly acquired patience

All through her Rio journey, what more stood out were her enviable patience, equanimity and the clarity of her thoughts in face of onslaught from her opponents. Gone was her confused demeanour that she used to have while overhitting her shots in an attempt to rush through rallies. There was a certain sense of a calm assurance about her that was hitherto not seen.

That allowed her to carefully vary her shots and put in the right mix of attack and guile to throw her revered opponents off-balance. A polished net game provided an anchor to her blazing smashes from the backcourt. World No. 2 Wang Yihan and World No. 8 Tai Tzu Ying both bore the brunt of it.

Sindhu’s silver medal is the culmination of the years of perseverance she and her family endured in pursuit of her dreams. Right from the day when her parents started to wake up at 3am to prepare their daughter for her classes with Gopichand at the crack of dawn, the work started. This medal is as much theirs and Gopi’s as it is hers.

With their unwavering support, the young girl grew up to discover the lioness in her. She is the epitome of the new India who is breaking the shackles and refusing to take a beating lying down. Sindhu was already assured of the silver medal when she reached the final, yet the performance that she produced speaks volumes of her attitude and courage.

Although, she had not stripped herself of all compassion in her ruthless chase for the gold. When her final conqueror Marin was overcome with emotions after coming to terms with the gravity of her win, the vanquished Indian went over to congratulate her and even gently picked up her racquet.

Sindhu’s humility and grace shone forth in that one gesture that was deservedly extolled the world over. She may have fallen short at the final hurdle but she is truly a winner in every sense. From making a cricket-mad India unite and fervently cheer for a badminton match to rousing the next generation, PV Sindhu truly went where no Indian has gone before!

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