As commiserations for the heart-breaking loss against Michelle Li of Canada in the semifinals of the Commonwealth Games at Glasgow where she ought to have won gold, PV Sindhu received a single, wordless, ruffling pat on the top of her head as she hunched down post defeat and broke down in tears. Pullela Gopichand allowed her the grief, and in turn let her deal with growing up on her own.
That was the last time the Games were ever mentioned between the two. And within a month of that cruel denial of a gold medal, which Sindhu realised was no entitlement but needed to be fought for and won, Gopichand was back court-side in Copenhagen. This time with a pat on her back as she refused to see the ‘Exit’ signs at the Ballerup Super Arena, and twice cheated defeat with her defiant play to ensure herself a bronze at Copenhagen’s World Championships.
Whatever dismay she felt, Gopichand did not encourage her to brood over it. “She might’ve been upset, but the last time we spoke about it was on the day she lost. Never after that,” the coach had said after she made the semifinals of the Worlds.
Never one for long, dull sermons, Gopichand had quietly offered Sindhu reassurance while shielding her from the high pressure of expectations that are regularly exerted on Indian shuttlers ever since Saina Nehwal raised the success bar for her compatriots.
After her loss to Carolina Marin in the semis at Denmark, the coach would’ve sure steered her towards focussing on the next target — the Asian Games at Incheon.
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These days the coach gets prickly when his ward is pulled up for her inconsistencies — losing to an obscure Canadian one day or going out in Round 1 or 2 in the Super Series and then suddenly slaying the Chinese the next month. He begs she be treated still as a work-in-progress. As someone who’s only half-chiselled in her game. As a teenager. “She’s just 19, we forget that,” he says, asking for perspective to be employed when judging her failures and celebrating her triumphs.
“She’s not lost so badly that she should be written off, and she’s still not won so much that we start expecting her to win every game. I’ll keep saying, she still has time to improve, to add to her shots. At least two more years before we see her best,” is Gopichand’s constant refrain, repeated after she bested Shixian Wang in the quarters. The ouster in the semis proved why she needed him as coach with a steady intent.
“For me, she’ll still be up and down, struggle and shine alternately,” he stresses.
It is this absolute patience – conveyed to the shuttler and her parents that has helped them make peace with the ups and downs of the circuit. “It’s enough for me that I see her fighting in every match, and enjoying the spirit of the game,” he says.
Winning her second Worlds medal, beating a Chinese no less, it is the coach who has also helped Sindhu live on the edge — for that’s what her matches have been, a slump and a stunning fightback all rolled into one hour matches.
“She’s evolved this year since the last Worlds, realising slowly that this is how she will win her matches — fighting, not always in straight sets. And because she’s had so many tough three-setters, she believes she can win from any position. When you have that at the back of your mind, how you were down and won, you become fearless,” Gopi explains.
His part in all this – staying courtside to help her tactically, and at times, saying nothing and allowing her to go figure.
Torn between wards
After her 22-20, 22-20 loss at the CWG semis, Gopi had quietly apologised to Sindhu’s father PV Ramana telling him he was torn between two Indians playing side by side — Kashyap and Sindhu, explaining that Kashyap, needed him more in that instance. “But he also told me that Sindhu needs to learn to think for herself on the court, and she showed that in Denmark,” Ramana says.
Sindhu was at the Gopichand Academy at age 10, and much before comparisons with Saina Nehwal started, she needed to live upto the expectations of being the gifted child of Arjuna Awardee father in volleyball. Gopichand never doubted the pedigree but it was the unsaid rule between parents, coach and the girl that hard-work would never be compromised. “He never screams. But players are afraid when he asks ‘What did you play today?’ quietly if they’ve botched a match,” the father says. This is said in the softest of imploring tones, almost a whisper. “Because he understands her so well and isn’t overtly strict like a ringmaster, she feels even more compelled to listen.”
Working on defence
Then there’s an assortment of emotions — Sindhu is quick to lose her temper on court, and her focus. Her bang-bang initial aggression when she discovered the smash needed to be tempered too, led to the coach drilling into her the importance of defense. Her strokes and placements needed to be softened factoring in the drift and her opponents. “At the same time he taught her to become threatening, and not get nervous. If she lost points in a hurry initially, her shoulders would slump,” her father recalls.
Gopichand, well-versed with her temperament and moreover with an eye firmly kept on opponents rising in the ranks from Japan and Korea, and now the newly crowned champ from Spain Marin, said whatever happened at the Worlds, he’d stick to his sked. “It’s big to knock off the second seed in a World Championship.
But we can’t lose focus and have to keep working on her flaws. It’s a tough job for me too, keep my emotions to the side when my players play.” But whenever Sindhu turns back to her corner a tad worried – P Gopichand wants her to know that he has all the answers to her anxious questions.