Sportspeople abhor answering the question: How did it feel? Mostly because the answers are obvious, but at other times, because they simply don’t remember the blur, much less can articulate those muddled moments. It’s 10 days since the epic World Badminton Championships final and P V Sindhu has wrapped up the week’s most demanding physical on-court session preparing for the Korea Super Series. When recalling the Glasgow final, she knows her body was reflexively reacting, but the only thing she lucidly remembers of the 73-shot rally is how her opponent was worse for the wear. “All I saw was that she was tired, and that was good for me. So I just said, ‘C’mon I have to just play, play, play’,” she says.
That match ran into 1 hour and 50 minutes, the longest of the world championships, with Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara finally winning 21-19, 20-22, 22-20.
It’s what Indian shuttlers are trained for these days — wired to not accept weariness. “I can’t say anything about being tired in a tournament — because we’re not supposed to be tired. It must have been tiring mentally and physically. But at that point of time you will just think ‘Oh, I have to win’. You will never feel — ‘Oh I’m tired, or I can’t play or I can’t move’. I never got that thought in my mind,” Sindhu says.
It’s not so much the sport’s ‘zone’ where effortless movements reign and sharp strokes land beautifully on a spot coaches would have marked with a coin. This is just hypnotic grit — mind-willing, body in tow.
Sindhu didn’t process pain that moment either. “Even if there was physical pain, all you think of is, ‘I should not leave that shuttle’.”
But if matches run on adrenaline, training sessions break the back. At some point in his career, coach Pullela Gopichand realised that all the beautiful badminton strokes come to nought if a player’s lungs can’t pump enough oxygen to execute those wonderful shuttle-arcs late in the game. His wards haven’t stopped running rounds of the track since.
Training sessions also afford the time to mull over tiredness. “Sometimes you push the limits and you can’t move any more. But if you think about it after somedays, you wonder, ‘Oh God, how did I do that?’. Only today I was thinking — how did I play 73 shots in that match? But at that time, when the match is on, you don’t know what keeps you going,” Sindhu says.
The glee of the medals, the dazzle of the glory and the thrill of the smash (Sindhu’s favourite stroke) aside, the 22-year-old says badminton is a contest of who blinks first. “When I play a long rally, and opponents get tired and I get a point, that’s the biggest thrill for me. I’m always like, ‘Hmm, let’s see who can get that long point. I’m also not gonna leave the shuttle, toh dekhte hain (let’s see) who wins’,” she says, with mock menace in her twinkling eyes.
There will be bigger battles against the Japanese girls, including the big prize — Tokyo 2020. And father P V Ramana has some swell memories of Japan, of a scoreboard that said 15-8, 15-11, 15-6.
Playing central block as India’s No. 11 against the fancied Japanese at the 1986 Asiad at Seoul, South Korea, Ramana — an earnest, moustachioed wall of a rangy man — stood out as he stopped the opponents’ fiercest attacks. In his volleyball career lasting 1982 to 2002, the South Central Railways had made a reputation for being able to absorb the worst of the piercing smashes of rival spikers. “All my fingers are gone now,” he says, turning over his hands to reveal a pair of mangled metacarpals.
The 1986 team, that beat Japan for India’s only Asiad medal in the game, had iconic names — Jimmy George, Kareemullah, G E Sridharan and Udaykumar. But Sindhu, who never watched her parents play — her mother Vijaya started out in Chennai and also played in Hyderabad — heard plenty about the famous ‘Ramana jump’.
“Whenever my dad’s friends come home, they say your dad used to play super. And that jump he took!… It was deceptive. When he jumped, they didn’t understand where he was hitting and he didn’t let opponents end a point. I never saw it, but I try and imagine and look at pictures,” Sindhu beams.
“Beating Japan was the best match,” Ramana adds.
Ramana and Vijaya met in 1984 and married in 1987. He had his fill of success, but the two were determined their child would not play a team sport. “I enjoyed my success, and the sport gave me a lot. But I observed later in life that it doesn’t matter how many nationals you win in volleyball. I could win 10, but they would not compare to winning two in badminton,” he says.
The Railways colony in Hyderabad where they lived had a badminton court adjacent to the volleyball one, and while Gopichand had scouted out the tall daughter of the spiker couple by age 10 (she was 5’4” at that age), Ramana had got his second daughter started earlier than that. “Sindhu would run 15-20 rounds of the 400-m track along with my Railways teammates. She was always keen on shuttle badminton, no other sport,” he says.
By then, Saina Nehwal had set the template for excellence in badminton. Ask Sindhu what she thinks of Saina, the fellow Hyderabadi who hails from Haryana, and she states, “Umm, we’re just hi-bye types.”
The two girls are cordial practising at adjacent courts at the Gopichand Academy, after Saina’s return to Hyderabad. But there are enough sparks in the air, as Saina brushes up her fitness drills and Sindhu finishes hers. Only the naivest can think this rivalry won’t flare up.
Don’t go looking for a verbal spat though — these two have enough in their shots to burn the separating aisles in practice. And you suspect the competition will fire up the level of badminton even further than the bronze and silver India returned with from the Worlds. Saina lost to Okuhara in the semis to end up with the bronze.
London 2012 Olympics, where Saina won bronze, is Sindhu’s earliest memory of TV sport. Sindhu has never watched a one-day cricket match. “Just T20,” she says, not quite knowing India’s sportscape when Olympic sport struggled to hold its own against cricket.
Perhaps the starkest generation gap between Saina and Sindhu is visible on the badminton court. The Saina legend grew in stature with her labouring to wins over the domineering Chinese.
“My first World Championships bronze medal, I won against the Chinese. It was the starting stage for me, so I felt really happy. But it’s like beating any other player. It’s not like the Chinese are special or something,” she says.
Sindhu’s breakthrough did come when she overpowered the dreaded Wang Yihan at the Worlds in 2013. “From thereon, people started recognising me. But I remember China Open, or maybe it was just some tournament in China the same year, I beat Olympic champ Li Xuerui. With the Chinese, my head-to-head is good, equal or one step higher. But I feel it’s just the winning mindset basically,” she adds.
But it’s what Sindhu managed next that puts her in staggering relief when compared to shuttlers before her. “Chinese like Wang Yihan are my friends. She’s very nice to talk to. They’re just learning English now. Even Shixian Wang speaks to me. It’s good to be friendly with everybody,” she says.
She sips on bubble tea in Taiwan and gets cravings for crepes from Paris. And she carries all the carefree self-assurance of the millennial who always knew what she wanted in life. “I never missed anything in school days or college because of badminton. I’ve always had friends in the sport. Now too I’m in touch with school friends on the phone, messaging and calling. That’s it, we don’t really get to meet. In college, I really don’t know anybody. I go to college to meet the principal and teachers.” No odes to sacrifice here.
She confesses she doesn’t miss the other proverbial sacrifice: eating paani-puri at an outdoor stall. She’s never stopped to pop a few at a thela, Sindhu says. “It’s not possible. If I try, I’ll get mobbed.” The only time she munches on them now is at Mumbai five-star hotels. “Normally when I go there for a shoot or an event, there is paani-puri for lunch when there’s a buffet, chaat and all that. I don’t have too much, only just to taste, but I like it,” she says.
Sindhu admits she likes standing tall at 5’11”, but not just because it lends her attacking power and reach. It helps her turn heads off-court too. “When you have that height, you have that fab look about you. You look very glamorous when you get ready, and anything will suit you,” she says.
She digs a wine-coloured sequined gown with a long trail she wore for an event and says skirts are passe as fashion on the badminton court. “Basically, I like the frocks (dress-gear) I’m wearing now. Yellow has become very famous after Rio (Olympics, 2016), but it’s not like I like yellow or anything. It just happened at Rio. At Worlds also, I just wore the frock randomly. Dresses in any colour look smart on court. The colour has no deep meaning,” she laughs.
Ask her about inspirations beyond sport, and she snaps back, “No, no, no. No politicians, no writers, no industrialists. I don’t think there’s anybody whom I want to be like.”
She was moved by the film Bhaag Milkha Bhaag though, because she can relate to the training put in by a famous Indian of an earlier generation. “Deepika (Padukone), Ranveer Singh, Ranbir (Kapoor), Manish, and Samantha and Prabhas in Telugu, are favourites, but I watch most movies that are released. I go to theatres even if I get mobbed. I should also get time to enjoy. Theatres are dark, so as soon as the movie gets over, I immediately leave. I walk past crowds,” she says, unruffled by the ruckus in her wake.
Regrets don’t sit well with this millionaire millennial. Jog her memory back to the Glasgow World Championships final and the last point, and she says, “I served and I knew she was going to dribble it, and I went for the tap, and it just went into the net.”
Would she have played it differently in hindsight?
“I think I played the correct way, it was the only option. Because I was 100 per cent sure that she was going to dribble. And I went for a tap, because at that point nobody would go for a tap, everybody would have gone for a safe shot or lift. But I was very sure she would dribble and I’d tap. It’s luck, but I don’t regret anything.”
Surely a loss like that would be mourned for long?
“There’s a small feeling ‘Arre, I could have got that gold in my hand’. It’s not like, ‘I didn’t play this, or I could’ve done that’. I played everything, gave it my all. I cried a lot after the match was over. Happens… My gold will come.”
Sindhu had missed out on her first Super Series final in 2015, after leading 16-12. Sindhu had match-point against World No. 1 Tai Tzu Ying in Australian Open 2017 in the quarters before she lost. But she has an Olympic silver.
Gopichand knows how odd it sounded when he said it, but the coach doesn’t mince words. Sindhu had silver from the Olympics and World Championships, but the coach reckons she is still “work in progress”.
He had patched up her splintering heart immediately after the Rio final against Carolina Marin. After Rio, Sindhu feels it’s her responsibility to fight till the last point. “Earlier, it was like I’m losing and nothing is going my way. I’d think everything is negative and, like most, I’d be sad that that point could have been mine. But I’ve learnt, if you keep thinking about it, you’ll lose the next two-three points also. Whenever I used to get negative in practice, Gopi sir would say, ‘Fine, ok, forget it, next point’.”
Fans could sit and analyse after Glasgow. Sindhu says she moved on fast, with the vengeance of the famished.
“Breakfast had been boring milk, eggs and bread that day. What else do you get in European hotels? After the match, dinner was chicken wings and biryani and I had ice-cream. I was done playing, so I just ate whatever I wanted!” she laughs. Wasn’t as filling as her mother’s mutton-keema, she says, but it replenished her spirits after a 110-minute marathon.
“I’ve lived all my life fearing Gopi sir would catch me eating junk food. He would catch me eating ice-cream and remind me about that when I played badly in practice.” August 27, the day after the Glasgow final, no one said a word.
By her own admission, Sindhu says, she is “a little too sensitive”.
She sees the humour in how that story of Gopichand making her stand in the middle of four courts and scream, grew into a legend. “When he told me to shout, I felt so bad. He was saying, ‘Shout… shout’. I actually never shouted. What happened was that he said he won’t let me play unless I shouted. We didn’t play finally — that’s how it ended! I went out and started crying. He called me in later, and said it’s okay.”
She did start pumping fists in matches and screaming eventually, delaying the reaction until after she won a point. “I get angry very fast,” Sindhu says. “Earlier, if I made a mistake, I used to throw my racquet and it would break. After just a few seconds, I’d wonder why I did that and feel very stupid. But at that moment, there would be so much anger, I’d want to break that racquet. I get angry very fast, but I cool down fast too.”
But Sindhu remains sensitive still about either her father or coach raising their pitch, even a tad. “If my dad suddenly says, ‘Sindhu, no. You should not do this’, and he says it very seriously, I’ll be affected immediately. If Gopi sir says, ‘Why did you do this?’, I get scared.”
She is clear though about her place in the history of Indian badminton. “Earlier for everybody, badminton was one of the many sports. Now it’s like Sin-dhu. That name. It is (a matter of) pride for Indians,” she says.
She’s not defensive about fame or the rapidly increasing endorsements, that could touch the crore figure. “Fame means a lot. If you have fame, you’ll get money too. Money’s not everything though. People hoping for the best for you and thinking that great things should happen to you… that’s the best feeling,” she says.
Sindhu is not presuming Tokyo would be logically better either. “This time it’s silver, it’ll be different next time. I have to just work hard and keep that focus. I can’t say, ‘Let’s see, let’s hope’. I’ll have to stick to the plan,” she says.
There are plans for a biopic, and she would love to call her book ‘Silver Sindhu’. “Maybe in the future the book will be called something different. But if it’s right now, definitely ‘Silver Sindhu’. Because of Rio. Maybe in future it might be way different.”
Medal’s not the only metal she loves. “I like jewellery a lot. A lot. Rings and earrings and chains and everything. I also love nail art. It’s a hobby. I keep doing gel nails. I’ve recently taken to outfits in handloom, and a different kind of jewellery goes with them. It can’t always be gold. Silver looks nice too!”