Turning the tide: The PV Sindhu way
Sometimes, in order to understand the present, you need to go back in time and analyse the past. In May 2016, India were playing China in the Uber Cup semifinal on their home turf. They had done exceedingly well to reach as far as that, having beaten a competent Thailand side in the quarterfinal.
Not much was expected from the girls against a powerful Chinese side, and the hopes further reduced when Saina Nehwal, despite playing out of her skin, lost a tight opening rubber to Li Xuerui. Without a doubt, India now had their backs firmly against the wall.
Out walked PV Sindhu, the other women's singles hope. She was up against Wang Shixian, a player nowhere as deceptive as Li Xuerui or as tricky as Wang Yihan. The opening game saw Shixian dominate as a nervous Sindhu found it tough to hit the ground running, and the Indian lost the game eventually 21-13.
The second game was when we saw glimpses of what we were to see later on in the Olympics. Sindhu, for the first time, played the kind of free-flowing game that she so superbly displayed in Rio, and this was in a sense a rehearsal to that.
Combining her reach with pinpoint accurate strokes, she led Shixian 11-4 at the break and you could sense a bit of the tide turning. Following the break, she went a notch higher and led 18-8, when something strange happened.
The flow reduced. The shots started to go wide and palms began to meet the faces of those watching all around the world. In a brutal counter-attack, Shixian clinched as many as six straight points to cut the lead to four points and soon enough, took the lead at 20-18.
It was an astonishing assault that had caught Sindhu as well as the others totally off-guard. And while Sindhu did all that she could to remain in the game, it was slipping, and slipping fast.
As much as she tried, Sindhu failed to save the game, losing 23-21. I remember covering that game live and watching Sindhu on the floor for a good 3-4 minutes post the game. Tired surely, but gutted even more so.
She knew she had it in her to beat Shixian that day. And had India made it 1-1 that day, who knows what would have happened.
Five months later, a different story emerges
On a warm Saturday afternoon in the same country, Sindhu was up against Sung Ji-Hyun, a more competent player than Shixian, but like her, not an invincible opponent.
It began on a bright note for the Korean, who pressed Sindhu to all corners of the court. The Indian made good use of her reach to swiftly move back and forth and retrieve the shuttle, but Sung proved too good tactically and won the game 21-11.
The second game, like in that Uber Cup game, saw Sindhu begin well, albeit not take as big a lead. But after the mid-game interval, things changed and at 17-20, it seemed all but over.
At a stage like that, a player can't look at the coach and ask," Hey! What now?”. The coaches are as clueless as the players are. But Madhumita Bisht, who was in the stands during the Uber Cup but by Sindhu's side during this game, shouted two very key words.
Now, those who have played the game at any level will tell you that when you are staring down the barrel, trailing by 3 MATCH POINTS as Sindhu was on Saturday, staying calm is the toughest thing to do.
You are lost in your own thoughts. Thinking tactics. Ways to counter. Trying to keep your hopes intact and praying that the opponent has a nervous break-down.
As if the gods had smiled on Sindhu, all four things happened right then. The Indian started to play the shuttle higher, extending the Korean to longer rallies and then inducing the errors. She ensured her hits on either end were precise; there was absolutely no room for errors anyway, and point-by-point, she forged her way back.
At 21-20 she panicked, but at 22-21, she didn’t and the game was won. The match was alive and kicking.
The decider proved to be yet another pulsating affair and the Indian held her nerve to win it 21-19.
In modern-day badminton, few show as much mental strength as Saina Nehwal does. But based purely on what happened on Saturday, one can say that we saw a glimpse into Sindhu’s thinking as well, when under the pump.
Sunday was always going to be her match, and despite a hiccup in the second game, she won the decider and with it, her first Super Series title. The empire was formed on Sunday, the foundations of which were laid on a Saturday some months ago.