Sindhu, who not so long ago would like to endlessly hang around the court to chat, has become a towering combination of skill, strength and attitude, and that has captivated the whole nation.
She got what it takes to succeed in sports in her genes: her father, P V Ramana, and mother, P Vijaya, were both volleyball players. An Arjuna awardee, Ramana was a member of the Indian team that won bronze at the 1986 Seoul Asian Games. Sindhu’s elder sister, P V Divya, was a national handball player who has now gone into medicine.
But good genes can only take you so far. Team Sindhu has consciously worked on her on-court skills, physical strength and the mental toughness in the last one year or so. The results have been remarkable.
At 1.79 metres, Sindhu always had the height advantage: she was able to cover the whole court in a few strides. She has now started to put it to even better use in her game. “Attack is my strong point, and the jump smash that I learnt shortly before Rio has really helped me score points,” says Sindhu in her carefree sing-song voice.
This jump smash was inspired by her father. Ramana always felt the “volleyball spike” would work in badminton as well and he’d often ask Sindhu to give it a shot. She’d resist because her shots would keep going into the net — now it’s turned into one of her strongest weapons.
The last few months have also seen a dramatic plugging of the chinks in Sindhu’s defence, especially when she was under constant pressure during the China Open. “I am now concentrating on improving all my strokes,” says Sindhu, after her return from Hong Kong. Notably, it was Taiwan’s Tzu Ying stroke-play and deft retrieval abilities that won her the match against Sindhu.
“Gopi Sir (Pullela Gopichand, her coach) makes all the sports-related decisions for us. I have become aggressive because that’s what the game demands,” says Sindhu.
People around her know the change has been profound. “There are very few players, especially female, who hit as hard as Sindhu does,” says Arun Vishnu, Sindhu’s coach for the Premier Badminton League.
Sanjay Sharma, former national badminton player and coach, feels that in the last one year, Sindhu has become far surer of herself, and her on-court movement has vastly improved. “She doesn't give her opponent much time to settle down, which works in her favour,” he adds.
A large part of what Sindhu has become is because of how she has been trained, believes her father, Ramana. “Yes, Gopichand had always wanted her to be more aggressive on the court, but now she too gets the point,” he adds.
Belligerence has become a defining trait in Sindhu’s game, and this on-court aggression stems from the early days of her coaching. “There weren’t many girls of Sindhu’s calibre, so she always trained with the boys. And she’d mostly beat them,” says Vishnu, laughing.
Active on the social media, Sindhu’s posts are a reflection of her buoyant persona and never-give-up attitude. After the Hong Kong Open, she tweeted, “Finally ended up with the silver. Had a great week in Hong Kong, extremely happy with my performance.” Another of her posts reads: “Keep smiling n one day life will get tired of upsetting u #keepsmilingalwaysnomatterwhat”. All of Sindhu’s posts come with selfies or pictures from tournaments.
When Sindhu bagged the silver at Rio, there were congratulatory banners across Hyderabad. Those have now disappeared. But at the entrance of the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy, an image of Sindhu holding up the Tricolour welcomes visitors: Congratulations, Super Sindhu for China Open 2016 win.
Up a flight of stairs, in the lobby of the academy, a notice board shows news clippings of Sindhu’s Rio exploits — the bits about China Open and Hong Kong haven’t made their way here yet.
Before all the frenzy leading up to Rio, the grounds of the academy would often see Gopichand’s students playing other games. Sindhu would join them to play games like Seven Stones and kho-kho in the expansive grounds outside the academy. What’d make the deal sweeter was that the losing team would have to treat the winning team for lunch or dinner, recall the students at the academy.
“We’d specifically ask them to play Indian games. The idea behind these games is not just to provide fun activities, but also to improve a player’s accuracy,” shares C Kiran, the physiotherapist at the academy and a significant part of Team Sindhu.
When Sindhu joined the academy in 2008, she came in with good reflexes and flexibility. But since she turned 12, the focus has been about perfecting and tweaking parts of her fitness schedule.
It’s a mix and match of different exercises, on-court training and yoga that make up Sindhu’s days, most of which begin with her starting practice at 4:15 am.
The last few months have seen a drastic difference in Sindhu’s form, feels her father. “Till about a few months before Rio, Sindhu’s physical fitness was just fine. Up till then everyone’s focus was largely on her skills. It was only in the months before the Olympics that the focus moved to her fitness and there was a tremendous improvement in that area,” says Ramana.
An average of 100 push-ups, 200 sit-ups, and 400-500 moves to strengthen her abdominal and core muscles are now par for the course for Sindhu, and her high levels of fitness are clearly visible on court.
For a long time, Gopichand’s team had to focus on Sindhu’s stability issues: problems which arose only because she was tall. This includes a stress fracture in her ankle about a year before Rio. But injuries such as these were expected, shares Kiran. Even when her leg was in a cast for two and a half months, Sindhu was never out of training. The focus was on strengthening her upper body.
“She has achieved far more than her body allows, she has delivered more than what was expected. That's a good sign for us,” he says. She’s only 21: many believe her best badminton days are still ahead of her.
Wonder Girl, Giant Killer, Silver Queen and Dragon Slayer: Sindhu says she’s thoroughly amused by the many names people call her by. And behind the scenes at the academy, few would recall the time Sindhu was in tears during a practice session shortly before Rio.
An average of 100 push-ups, 200 sit-ups, and 400-500 moves are now par for the course for Sindhu
Gopichand had repeatedly asked Sindhu to shout while hitting to show a visible sign of aggression, but Sindhu would hold back. That was when the usually soft-spoken and courteous Gopichand shouted at her.
This shocked Sindhu, but it also did the trick. “She’d shout before, but it was never like what we saw at the Olympics,” recalls Ramana.
“Gopichand has worked wonders. It’s totally out of character for Sindhu to be so aggressive; she's turned into a mean player and that’s very good. And this isn’t just physical, but also mental aggression,” he explains.
Even when Sindhu’s down and almost out, you see her fighting back. “She’s no longer there just to play a game; she's there to give it her best,” says Sharma.
The “calculated aggression” that’s made its way into Sindhu’s game is being hailed as a sign of her maturity. Somewhere between the long rallies at the China Open semi-final, when Sindhu realised that Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun was sensing her attacks and picking up her smashes, Sindhu slowed down her pace to alternate between defence and offence.
It takes courage to slow down when you are tuned to aggression. And she showed the same resilience when she went up against China’s Sun Yu the next day as she patiently tore down Sun Yu’s resistance.
Many attribute Sindhu’s mental strength to yoga and meditation — something she does only because it’s required of her.
Usually calm before a game, the mental strength that Sindhu now showcases also comes with focus and discipline. Knowing her social media disposition, Gopichand had taken away her phone for three months before Rio.
Sindhu, who takes to social media like fish to water, suddenly found herself wearing blinders. It tremendously upped the shuttler’s game as her focus stayed on badminton.
Even in Rio, right after she had scripted history, an unprompted act showed that the game may have been over, but Sindhu’s focus had still not wavered to the cheering crowds or her waiting coach. This was the simple, yet impulsive, act of picking up Carolina Marin’s racquet (which the Spaniard had flung away in excitement) and keeping it safely aside Marin’s bag.
While Sindhu will play for the Chennai Smashers, Marin will play for Hyderabad Hunters in the Premier Badminton League scheduled for January. “The whole country is waiting for the match when Sindhu will face Marin again,” says Vishnu, “Maybe Sindhu will have her revenge then.”
Back in the academy after Hong Kong, Sindhu says she’s “completely focussed” on making a memorable debut at the Dubai World Super Series which takes place later this month.
“Sindhu will be pitted against the world’s top notch players there,” says Sharma, “Every match in Dubai will be like a final for her.” Sindhu looks ready for the challenge.
As former Chinese swimmer Fan Hong once described his country’s philosophy, “Competitive sport is war without gunfire”.