P.V. Sindhu - a story of indomitable passion and incredible grace
On the evening of 19th August, the usually crowded streets across the country wore a deserted look. At homes and in shopping malls, people had gathered in hundreds in front of large television sets anxiously waiting for the match to start. A sense of premature celebration was cautiously mixed with an air of uneasy trepidation.
Any avid sports fan who had not been in the loop for the last few days could have been forgiven for thinking that the people had gathered to watch an India-Pakistan cricket match. The entire country by then was watching Pusarla Venkata Sindhu battle it out against Carolina Marin for a gold medal in the Rio Olympics.
The Rio Olympics has been a story of true grit, determination, and fairytales. For Indian athletes, it was a case of emerging victorious against the odds, fighting a stubborn system filled with neglect, ignorance, and corruption. Coming from working class backgrounds with meagre means, the herculean hurdles that most of these athletes had to overcome to make it to Rio in the first place is a sheer testament to their unwavering skill and dedication.
The early shocking exit of Saina Nehwal, considered to be one of the best bets for India for bagging a medal in women's single badminton, had left the country bitterly disappointed. Sindhu had reportedly shared that disappointment and taken it upon herself to ensure that India did not return home empty-handed from the women's singles event.
Even when the nation was left reeling from Saina's defeat to Marija Ulitina of Ukraine, it was Sindhu's spirited performance against the World No. 2 Wang Yihan that re-ignited medal hopes. In a pulsating encounter that briefly saw the pendulum swing, either way, it was Sindhu who held her nerve remarkably combining her exceptional defence with trademark smashes to win 22-20, 21-19.
Despite the match being keenly contested as expected, it was a remarkable feat for Sindhu to beat Yihan in straight sets in the quarter-final. It was not only that she had compelled the entire nation to sit up and take notice of the fact that she was on the verge of achieving something remarkable -- more incredible was the fact that she had almost single-handedly made the entire nation take an interest in a sport that they had ignored at their own peril.
On a quiet day in Birmingham back in March 2001, Pullela Gopichand stunned Cheng Hong to win the men's singles title at the All-England Badminton Championships. It was an incredible achievement considered by many to be one of the biggest ever upset back then and made even more remarkable by the fact that a grievous knee injury in 1995 had led to predictions that Gopichand would never properly walk again.
Gopichand's achievement did not go unnoticed but it particularly caught the imagination of a young P.V. Sindhu who also hailed from his home state of Andhra Pradesh. It was an event that changed her life and made her choose Badminton over Volleyball as desired by her parents in the first place.
Sindhu's parents were both accomplished volleyball players -- her father P.V. Ramanna, who later received the Arjuna award, had played in the Indian volleyball team that won bronze at the Seoul Asian Games in 1986. It was Sindhu's mother, Vijaya who convinced him to let their daughter take up badminton seriously.
Even at such a young age, Sindhu's determination to excel in what she loved was perhaps unmatched. She would travel 56 kilometres every day, riding pillion on her father's scooter, to reach her training centre.
Professional coach Mehboob Ali was her first mentor and tutored her on the basics of the game on the badminton courts of the Indian Institute of Signal Engineering and Telecommunications. But her success story really began at the age of nine when her idol Gopichand agreed to take her as his student in his academy at Gachibowli, on the outskirts of Hyderabad.
Over the years, the Gopichand academy would become a name synonymous with success in domestic and international badminton circuits. The main practise arena is a full-sized football pitch containing all state-of-the-art facilities like a gym, a strength training and gymnastics room, a table-tennis room, a cafeteria, a swimming pool and facilities for ice-baths.
Known as a strict disciplinarian, it is here that Gopichand firmly instills in his pupils the grit, determination and never-say-die attitude which is characteristic of his players. He reaches the court at 4.15 am daily, much before anyone else and his day continues till 7 pm in the evening.
The 42-year old is ever present, shouting and screaming at his students, throwing shuttlecocks like quick-fire missiles at them. The academy, which has produced illustrious protégés like P.V. Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, and Kidambi Srikanth, is famous for instilling a strict regimentation in everyone by going through a fixed diet, exercise, and training schedule.
As Sindhu overcame one hurdle after another en route to her glorious march to the final in the Rio Olympics, her parents started camping at the Gopichand academy where they watch the matches along with the other students and together cheered her on.
“Instead of watching alone at our respective homes we decided to set up a screen here and watch the match together,” Sai Vishnu, Gopichand’s son said. “After she won the first set I was confident she will storm into the final. This is where our daughter trained, so this is where we watched her play today in Rio,’’ P V Ramana said immediately after the match.
It was a carnivalesque atmosphere with all the young students of the academy, armed with banners, cheering her on and celebrating each point hoarsely with delight. Moments like those are few and far between in one's life -- the hard work put in by her parents and her coach Gopichand stood vindicated.
Rapid rise to fame
Growing up in the Gopichand academy under the stellar shadow of Saina Nehwal, the young Sindhu displayed remarkable maturity, taking giant strides to greatness at a young age. During the 2012 London Olympics, she had been a 16-year old teenager cheering Nehwal on en route to her bronze medal. Little did she know back then that she would be one of the brightest medal hopes for the country in the next Olympics four years later.
Sindhu who had broken into the Top 20 in 2012 and went into this year's Olympics ranked number 10, said before the Games, "The biggest dream I am chasing now is an Olympic medal. I remember watching Saina in London. Then I was ranked World No. 25. I always longed to be there and I am all excited to represent India in Rio.”
2013 was a great year for her as she won her maiden Grand Prix gold at the Malaysian Open which was followed by the hat-trick of titles at the Macau Open. Her rise had been nothing short of meteoric -- ever since she joined the Gopichand academy, she went on to win the fifth Servo All India ranking championship in the doubles category and the singles title at the Ambuja Cement All India ranking. She also went on to win a gold medal at the 51st National School Games.
Her tremendous run of form continued - she won the bronze medal at the 2009 sub-junior Asian Badminton Championships and then bagged silver at the 2010 World Junior Championships in Mexico. But it was in 2013 that she pulled off her first major international upset when she defeated Wang Yihan in straight sets at the 2013 World Championships in Guangzhou - the same Yihan that she defeated in the quarter-final of the 2016 Olympics - and went on to win the bronze medal.
When she repeated her remarkable bronze medal feat at the 2014 World Championships in Copenhagen, she began to raise hopes of being a serious medal contender. By then, of course, she was a bright name among the emerging players in the domestic badminton circuit. She received the Arjuna award in 2013 and became the youngest recipient of the Padma Shri, India's fourth-highest civilian honour, in 2015.
A fairytale journey
In 2015, Sindhu reached her maiden final of a Super Series event at the Denmark Open, having defeated three top-seeded players in Tai Tzu-Ying, Wang Yihan, and Carolina Marin. Her victory against Marin in a close match with the final score of 21-15, 18-21, 21-17, was much talked about before the Gold Medal match in Rio. Sindhu had then matched Marin shot for shot on that occasion, perfectly executing her smashes, and winning six straight points when she was down 14-16 in the third set.
Her journey en route to her first Olympic Gold Medal match had been a near perfect one as she had stormed into the final dropping just one set throughout the event. If defeating Yihan was a remarkable feat, she followed it up with an incredible performance in the semi-final to beat Nozomi Okuhara of Japan. All three past meetings between the two had gone in favour of the Japanese till then which meant a gargantuan effort was required from Sindhu to oust her this time.
And she did pull off a victory in style; totally dominating her opponent throughout the match emerging victorious 21-19, 21-10. If the first game had been a close affair, Sindhu breezed through the second game winning eleven straight points to make it 21-10 from a stage when they had been locked 10-10 in the second game.
Okuhara tried a desperate ploy, approaching the net on several occasions to adopt a more attacking approach but Sindhu's defence was solid. She had answers to every attack launched and then counter-attacked her opponent with remarkable prowess. Sindhu was always considered to possess a maturity beyond her age but inconsistency had often let her down in the past. The Rio Olympics witnessed a more aggressive and determined version of Sindhu who was more willing to wait for the right opportunity to pull the trigger.
Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda after the match, she said, “I have always had a mental block of sorts while playing Nozumi, her style of play is so different from mine that it contradicts it. However, this time, both me and Sir (Pullela Gopichand) planned on how we can work around her game. So I changed my gameplan, but she still adapted very quickly. You could see it in the first game, I took the lead but then she came back and then it was 19-19. So it was anybody’s game. Those two points which made it 21-19 were the key points for me.”
Her coach Gopichand revealed that they had been working specifically on analysing the opponents' game so as to effectively exploit their weaknesses. Perfect smashes had always been one of Sindhu's strengths but at Rio, she also worked hard on her defence and brought in the deft touches to give her game an extra dimension.
Insurmountable last hurdle, but glorious achievement
P.V. Sindhu became the first Indian athlete to bag a silver medal in a Badminton singles event at the Olympics. Her tremendous run of form was ultimately halted by Carolina Marin as she lost 1 21-19, 12-21, 15-21 to the World No. 1.
Sindhu had earlier said in interviews that she would never give up without a fight and it was her indomitable spirit on display during the final. Her tremendous comeback in the first set when she stunned Marin by clinching the game 21-19 raised hopes throughout the nation. But Marin was at her imperial best after that, mixing up her game aggressively to push the Indian on her backfoot.
Yet it was her indomitable spirit that Marin could not conquer. Visibly shattered momentarily as she slumped to the ground, Sindhu was quick to regain her poise as she walked over to Marin who was inconsolably sobbing in happiness. Quietly congratulating her and then picking up the Spaniard's racquet to lay it by the side of the court, Sindhu achieved a grace and dignity in defeat that few of her age could even dream of.
Sindhu and Gopichand returned to a grand reception at Hyderabad where the Telangana government organised a felicitation ceremony for her.
Support and appreciation have poured in from all quarters with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award having been conferred on her. The Telangana government has announced a Rs. 5 crore cash reward for the 21-year-old, a 1,000 square yard housing site near the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Gachibowli and a government job. The government is also set to award a cash prize of Rs. 1 crore for Gopichand.
Sindhu has achieved something truly remarkable and she seriously deserves every praise and accolade that she is receiving. We must, at the same time, be overly cautious of efforts to appropriate her glory for political gains in the name of harmless appreciation. Her achievement is a result of her hard work and the support she received from her exemplary coach and parents.
Before we embark on the familiar rhetoric of being proud as a nation, we should reflect on how we, as a nation, have failed our athletes with our casual nonchalance or ignorance about sports in general. Sindhu has indeed pulled off a truly remarkable feat by bagging the silver medal at the Rio Olympics but her more significant achievement perhaps is that she made the nation ashamed about its ignorance of a sporting culture. This is indeed a time for celebration but it is also a time for deeper introspection on our part.
When the entire country came together to watch Sindhu's matches at the Rio Olympics, it was one of the most significant and beautiful moments in our sporting history. It was a moment of celebration and preparation.
Beyond the awards and the euphoria, one can only hope that Sindhu's achievement will finally be reason enough for us to religiously follow and encourage our athletes in a more sustained and systematic way. After all, as Gopichand has said, Sindhu's journey has only begun.