Updated: August 8, 2021 1:38:31 pm
PV Sindhu makes history by clearing browser caches of her competitive life. Her secret to succeeding on a badminton court is remembering, unfailingly, to forget. Win or lose; rinse, don’t remember, don’t repeat.
There was the BWF (Badminton World Federation) World Championships gold medal she won in 2019, by forgetting the two stinging losses for silvers of 2017 and 2018. This time at Tokyo, Sindhu carefully erased all thoughts of gold or silver to nail a bronze, making this her back-to-back medalling in the Olympic Games. The disappointment of going down in the semifinals was scrubbed clean after the initial tears. It is how Sindhu is staggeringly successful, in obliterating landscapes of losses that would leave most others wandering and lost.
Badminton revels in its disappointments. It nurses regrets and carefully curates every despondency. Malaysian legend Lee Chong Wei never won the Olympics or World Championships titles. Indonesian Olympic champion Taufik Hidayat just couldn’t crack the All England Open championships. Taipei’s Tai Tzu-Ying, who is the closest a muggle can come to Wingardium Leviosa, controlling a feather with a wizard’s wand, risked being told she was altogether inadequate had she not made it to the badminton podium this time.
Sindhu, too, was told she can’t win the finals, the perennial doubts tarnishing all her silvers. Sindhu herself barely ever publicly indulged in these long, meandering post-mortems.
Ask her about her second match at Tokyo where she faced Hong Kong’s Cheung Ngan Yi, who had dragged her into an 87-minute wringer at the 2017 Glasgow World Championships, where she was on all fours, panting heavy, and could barely stand up. Memories like that — an almighty plod even before Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara tested her in the famous final — can leave bruises that can jump up at a nervy stage like the Olympics. Not for Sindhu, who has a sketchy recall of that match.
“But every time we get onto the court, it’s a fresh match and I don’t think about what has happened before. We, of course, make strategies from the earlier games, but every time you come on the court, you don’t think about past matches. You just come with a mindset where you need to give your best present,” she says, after winning her bronze. “Best present” is Sindhu’s own invention — an original tense that means living only in that moment, which is an unburdened, untangled, isolated few minutes before a rally.
She didn’t know whether to be sad about the lost gold or be happy about the second chance. Her Korean coach Park Tae-Sang wasn’t quite spouting Nietzsche that evening after she lost the semifinals, by telling her “Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders”. He did pithily tell her though that the fourth place would leave her wretched. Ice bath, recovery massage, dinner, sleep…and memory of the semifinal brushed aside. Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind; the prayer of a bronze accepted, the wish for gold, resign’d.
Sindhu is the reigning world champion; she has won a bigger medal at the Rio Olympics in 2016. The bronze is only the third step on the podium. But Sindhu saw the next 24 hours with algorithmic ease: one medal, two countries gunning for it, and a Chinese southpaw with suspect backhand, “Hulk, Smash”.
Sindhu has enjoyed an upbringing of a First World athlete. That is not to say her family didn’t face financial struggles or that she didn’t go through the uncomplaining repetitions during practice to keep her body fit. But marked as a special talent, not shy of working hard, she didn’t struggle for facilities. She had it all — top-notch academy, high-performance coaches, shuttles, international tournaments, and seamless funding from the establishment. Sindhu’s athletic, rangy game was meant to succeed if she could keep herself uninjured and agile. It needed fine chiselling like the Bidri metal craft and not a dramatic DIY store makeover.
Getting on the Forbes list of highest-paid women athletes in 2019, showered by sponsors, Sindhu never had to claw at the basics or build a pucca house, like some others who won at Tokyo. She earned her privilege and preserved it, and stayed within the comfortable straight and narrow on tricky issues, non-committal on anything that could nudge her away from the pleasant and polite. India remained an indulgent country, but Sindhu was only one dip away from facing the proverbial cold shoulder. Yet, this was badminton, and she lost plenty on either side of her five medals at the World Championships and two at the Olympics, of which one was gold. In the absence of any major turbulence that ails Indian athletes, her struggles in her snugly cloistered universe were of the elite First World variety: How to forget a stinging loss and move on to the next medal.
Around this New Year’s at the UK, after a happy snowy Christmas enjoying her freedom from minute-to-minute monitoring, Sindhu would post an emoji-bookended message: “Life’s not about expecting, hoping and wishing, it’s about doing, being and becoming.” It was the first of these motivational “for self” Post-its that you realised she buys into: ignore expectations, remember actions.
Athletes lead fishbowl lives, but in the absence of square-meal struggles or rancour, they tend to keep their life hacks simple. When the Olympics draws came out, it was evident that players strewn across her path from the quarters onwards could trip her up. The preparations had been to her satisfaction and she would get down to shedding old, damaged statistics by declaring every opponent as tough.
Not everything went as planned. But she shrugged off both the snub to her wish of being a flagbearer and the snapping at her heels by Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi in the quarters with the same nonchalance. Resentments, reputations, reversals, railroading by opponents leave her completely unperturbed. If it’s all the same, she’d rather sit back with some bubble tea and look to the next match.
Landing in Tokyo, Sindhu enjoyed being in her terrain. “Olympics is everybody’s dream come true. The Athletes Village itself is a nice place. There are lots of athletes who do really well and get those medals,” she says. Though all she remembers is settling in nicely at her sophomore Games.
Ask her about routines of medal-chasing athletes, and she forgets she’s one among them, talking in third person. “Those top shuttlers get into a routine. I noticed how they do things and how every athlete has a different exercise workout,” she recalls.
There’s a kaleidoscope of movements as she revs up the engine for the knockouts. Like the forced perspective filmmakers have in movies such as The Lord of the Rings, Alice in Wonderland or King Kong, where objects look larger by playing with space and distance, for Sindhu, opponents appear in sharp focus. Yamaguchi fetches up, life-sized in the quarters. Cue: Forget just how endlessly the Japanese can retrieve.
“There were long rallies. There are no easy or short matches against her. So, I have to be patient and put the shuttle in the court and use my attack, even though she retrieves,” she says. Getting bogged down by the prospect of a tough grind isn’t Sindhu’s style.
But nothing went right in the semifinals against Tai. A dream of a gold ended, just like that. The Taiwanese dictated points, unveiled trickery and packed the Indian off. The lost semifinal meant Sindhu could miss out on a medal at the Major League for the first time in five years. She cried, then stopped, and erased the thought for first and second place. And then, it began, the slashing at the prospect of a dreaded fourth finish.
Looking back, while Tai has dominated completely, Sindhu latched on to a safety that helped her cope. Ask her if she mulled over lost points and she waves it away with a long “Noooo”.
“I played my best. Sometimes, it happens that it might just not be your day. So, yeah, if I might have won the first set, it would have been different. Perhaps, the net-cord was the difference,” she muses. This happened at the 18-18 stage in the first set. A net-cord is considered poor luck when the shuttle nicks the net and can fall on either side. Thin margins are bonafide blemishes, and a scaffolding comes up around her confidence, where she will not, for the moment, admit and analyse how strong Tai was. Scratch the match, move on.
Day of the bronze match, breakfast is bread, egg, bacon sausage and some milk. The match is scheduled for the late evening. Lunch is katsu curry and rice, and other Japanese food. “More than that, since our match was in the evening it was like ‘When will I play…when will I play…and, when will I get onto the court?’ That was the only thing going on in my mind,” she says. Fade the expectations, focus on actions. When she was younger, Sindhu would bite her nails before a nervy match. Then nail-art happened. Polish and glitter didn’t taste good.
Her opponent that day, China’s He Bingjiao, was a compact player and technically proficient, but Sindhu would have none of it. She figured the bronze was the most coveted thing, that moment, for the two nations. “Everybody was aiming for that medal to make their country proud. He Bingjiao has really good wrists so her deception also was very good. But, again, it was important that I am in every point, even if she was covering leads. I made sure even though I’m leading, I don’t give her easy points. I maintained that and got the medal,” she says simply.
The bronze morphed into a sympathetic pat on Tai’s back as the Taiwanese waited for the award ceremony, dealing with her loss of a gold. “I congratulated (China’s) Chen Yufei. Of course, Tai was feeling bad so I just told her everything will be fine,” she recalls. “Silver’s a good medal,” the bronze winner told Tai.
It was the warmest of exchanges, where Sindhu forgot her own disappointment and got into the shoes of the silver medallist. At Rio, she had realised she was the only one on the court to lead Spain’s Carolina Marin through her early moments with the gold.
She might have become India’s biggest female Olympian, but Sindhu has a healthy relationship with a loss. And the bronze. At the 2013 World Championships, when she won her first, she knew the enormity of it. “I was super, super happy. I wasn’t very experienced then. So, getting something new was exciting,” she recalls. A year later, again at the World Championships, the medal shape-shifted into the “first time for a second successive bronze.”
She makes her peace with bronze, then she forgets about it. In December this year is the World Championships at Huelva, Spain, Marin’s hometown, where she’ll defend her title. “It’s the first time I’ll be defending my title; it’ll be exciting,” she says. Spotless sunshine. Eternal Mind. Same Sindhu.
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