PV Sindhu scored the biggest headlines of 2017 in Indian sport, playing and losing in epic finals of the badminton calendar. While the World Championship final at Glasgow was a certified classic, in Dubai last week, she proved that every time she steps on court, she’s capable of conjuring thrillers.
Here she talks about how she’s a pro at reversing losses, how it’s pragmatic to play Saina Nehwal as one of the many top-level opponents and not dramatise the rivalry, how no two Chinese are the same, neither are her two Japanese conquerors and how head-to-head history is redundant.
The 22-year-old Hyderabadi also betrays a youthful temperament where long flights and ceaseless travel is used to get over grief of the last prickling loss, and how putting on a glamourous outfit is the best way to switch off. She is stubborn about pushing the shuttle the way she did at the net — which brought the two losses — and insists she’ll win a big final with that very shot one day.
What do you remember of the start of the year 2017?
We started with the PBL. It was really good because winning every match gave me some kind of confidence at the start of 2017. Also beating the top players boosted me up. It was very good that the whole Chennai team supported me, and I enjoyed the responsibility. Probably for the first time, I was shouldering the responsibility (after winning the 2016 Olympic silver) of having to win every match for the team. I’d finished runners-up earlier, but we could win the title this year. So, psychologically it helped. The PBL was followed by Syed Modi at Lucknow. Again, it was important because I’d lost the final here in 2014, so it was important to win this title.
How different was the pressure of winning the bigger Super Series title at home?
Everyone wanted me to win at home after the Olympic medal. And I’d never won the India Super Series before, plus they wanted to watch me play Carolina. There were expectations, and I had to deliver, winning at home. There was nothing like pressure, it’s good that the crowd was supporting me and it felt good because we usually play outside India and don’t experience this in a big Tour event. Some people struggle to deal with that pressure of playing at home, and they can’t take it. I didn’t feel that way, it helped in fact.
How do you approach a match against Saina?
I’ve played her before the India Super Series. I just play her as one of the top-ranked players. It’s not like because it’s Saina, I’ll approach the match differently because that won’t help. You prepare and go out there thinking you are playing a tough, top world player. I strictly stick to my game, and just give my best.
What about the big events in 2018 — the All England, CWG and Asian Games? Are they boxes you need to tick?
You have to go step by step and not build up pressure about having never won them. Yes, All England is one of the most important tournaments. It’s very prestigious and we all know it. But I’ll treat it like a big tournament once there. I don’t remember Gopi sir’s win as I was very young but of course I’ve seen the match in later years.
The Commonwealth Games is important too because it doesn’t come every year. At the Asian Games, India had a team bronze last time. But I’ll approach it one tournament at a time. The schedule for 2018 is a lot of tournaments — there’s SS Premier and SS, and each one will seem important approaching it. As a player, one at a time, is the approach.
You faced the new crop of Chinese this year. You’ve had considerable success against them, but how do you see the younger ones?
Well, Chen Yufei is definitely a good player. She’s done well this year and caused some upsets, including reaching World Championship semis. The tall Gao Fangjie played well, and after beating me she beat Carolina (Marin), made the China Open finals and also won the Korean Masters. I was seeing her for the first time, and she had good strokes. If they work hard, they’ll definitely be the challenges we face in coming years.
But everybody has a different style so wouldn’t want to compare her with the last generation of Li Xuerui and Wang Yihan Wang. Now the only difference is it’s not just the Chinese — everybody has a different style of play and is tough to beat. There’s no more easy matches, and most times matches go to 40-45 minutes minimum. There is very high quality of strokes and the general aggressiveness has gone up. Each point is important, and it’s a tough circuit.
What was the difference in playing Akane Yamaguchi and Nozomi Okuhara?
They are both Japanese rally players, but with totally different styles. Nothing is predictable or monotonous on the women’s singles circuit now. Nozomi Okuhara is a rally player, but purely defensive. Yamaguchi is smaller but attacks. The Japanese are mostly rally players and they were known to make you run. But they just keep good energy to prolong rallies and keep playing, hitting those high tosses that are challenging.
Has Japan replaced China as the country to beat?
It might seem so because I lost the two finals, but no, it’s much more open. Not just the Chinese or Japanese, but you can’t pick one — there’s Carolina and then there’s Tai Tzu from Taipei who has had a stunning year but not made the big finals. She has amazing deceptive strokes which I really like. Players from Thailand like Ratchanok are totally different, and now two junior players from Korea are coming up. Every country has raised its game, and even within countries, there’s different styles.
How do you look at losing three big finals?
Dubai was definitely a great final, also one of the longest matches I’ve played. Almost like World Championships, even the score was almost same in the final set. But you keep winning, you keep losing. It’s part of life, and you learn from mistakes. I’ve lost a lot of close matches before the Olympics silver, and I believe losses help me come back much sharper.
Does it help in thinking that you’ve beaten Okuhara and Yamaguchi earlier — former at Olympics and latter for a 5-3 head to head record?
No, it’d be a mistake to think like that. The only thing that matters is who plays well that day instead of thinking that, ‘fine, I’ve won against her before’. You can never take that risk of thinking it might be easy. Every tournament is different. Tournament by tournament, match by match, they will read your mistakes, and you will know theirs. The game automatically changes, and strategy changes. It’s not the same type of game you play against the same opponent. Mentally and physically you have to be strong to face this, forget about the past and fight like new each time. I can’t get bogged down because I lost three finals. If I had, I wouldn’t have reached here because like I said, before 2016, I used to lose a lot. I was still top-2 at Worlds, Olympics and Super Series Finals.
What does going back to the drawing board feel like?
I managed to find consistency in 2017 by believing in myself. You keep working hard on strokes mentally and physically. When you learn new strokes, you get to know your mistakes in practice. When you look back at lost matches, you notice mistakes you never knew existed. They’ll be magnified. But you won’t repeat them again in the next match.
That attempted lift that landed in the net — was that a mistake repeated in the crunch at Worlds and Dubai?
No, it’s not my greatest mistake. (Laughs). There’s not just one. See, I’m not doing it consciously or it wasn’t a mistake as an idea. If I change and work on that, it’ll be fine. It just happened. It normally doesn’t go to the net. On another day, I would’ve lobbed it easily. But mistakes happen from everybody. It’s okay.
So you just pack your bags and catch the next flight?
Yes, there’s nothing much to do the rest of the day. You just go back to work. In my mind, it’s over. Yes, you feel upset for a while, but you have to forget it and move on and focus on the next tournaments. You learn from mistakes of course. This constant travel helps — we all have busy schedules, and no time to mope.
Can you say you are largely untroubled by left-handers — since Carolina at Olympics?
Oh, the strategy against different lefties is very different. I play Sayaka Sato and Carolina very differently, but yes it doesn’t have a mental bearing on me that they are southpaws putting pressure on me because of angles.
How do you deal with us critics talking about your losses?
It’s really important to interact with the press because they need quotes for their work. They follow your career, look up to you, they know about you very well so it’s my responsibility to give them that respect. It’s been a part of my life since I was young. Sometimes when I lose, they might write badly about me. But it’s their job and their opinion. It’s what they do. Our duty is to give our point of view and complete their picture from our perspective. I’ve always been ok at it.
What about sponsorship commitments and photo shoots and award functions?
I think I like that a lot. I love dressing up. It’s what helps me switch off, and in one way it’s the best thing to do away from badminton. It’s important for everybody to take yourself out of that intense pressure environment of competing every day and do something glamourous once in a while. Keeps me mentally fresh for the next gritty match.
How different was 2017 from 2016, and what do we expect from 2018?
2017 was a good year if I have to look back. One new thing I learnt this year is patience — very extreme level of patience. Also, I’ve been much more busy this year than last! Looking ahead, people should expect a lot more from me. There’s definitely a lot more to come.
Would you change anything about the final next time you step on the court for one?
No, I wouldn’t change anything. I’ll change nothing when playing, but still change the result.