PV Sindhu had already picked two World Championship bronzes when a renowned former Indonesian coach had passed a summary judgment on the least-noticed aspect of her game — he rumbled in between puffs of thick cigar that her footwork was off.
Coaches from countries deeply pickled in the sport, tend to notice such minute things. Moreover they have the luxury of watching from a distance without having to get down to the nuts and bolts of how to change those things in the athlete — in Sindhu’s case someone nearing 6 feet. One quick glance at Sindhu — after half a dozen seasons, 4 World Championship and 1 Olympic medals and crucially a reboot in her game over the last two years — will get an approving grunt from the same coach now. Sindhu’s stance has taken a literal turn for the better now, and her movement is smoothening out its edges — with a year to go to the Tokyo Olympics.
It is to Sindhu and her coaches’ credit that she medalled consistently at the top level (badminton’s a rare round-the-year sport for an Indian athlete, judged almost every month against the best on the circuit) even while some fundamentals jarred. But a veneer of solidity is polishing the 24-year-old’s game, and the World Championships at Basel will offer glimpses of the chiselling that’s underway.
When Sindhu squared off against Pai Yu Po of Chinese Taipei in her opening match to win 21-14, 21-15, the 43 minutes gave her a good all-rounded workout against an opponent who wasn’t testing her tactically that much but putting her through the cantering paces before the gallop ahead in the the week.
As Sindhu refabricates her game slowly – after the gritty, stamina-backed attritionals of two years ago from Glasgow — her pace remains that of the mounted knight but her movement is more bishop. So for large parts of the game, she was getting into stride on her returns that was between 45 degrees and even perpendicular to the net, negotiating the shuttle at a standing angle that is helping her movement gain milli-seconds.
For far too long, Sindhu stood facing almost parallel to the net which constricted her shot-making and got her into awkward knots. She’s begun to receive and move with her body more diagonal than lateral now. As a tall player with a fantastic reach and a strong physical game, the other extremity — her footwork — had been understated and taken it’s time to mature. It wasn’t just about long strides and lunges to the short forecourt, where net retrievals tested her.
With her recalibrated movement, Sindhu will now be able to turn (and pivot) and move swifter and as was seen throughout the opening match, she was able to get to the centre of the court quicker for the parallel shots. It’s a small part of the game with no direct bearing on her stroke-making, save for getting her into position faster to get more time on the shuttle.
But these were the minor limitations that had added up cumulatively to cost her the 2017 & 2018 World’s and 2016 Olympic titles, when coach Gopichand had called her “still a work in progress.” Her defense, her deception, variations in strokes and movement had all carried chinks — most alterations difficult to carry out given she was tall and back then not very agile resultantly.
Another part of the footwork that is visibly different now is how Sindhu looks bouncy on her feet. Not only have her legs gained in strength, but she’s also moving a little frothily. So the shuttle that she would end up catching behind her body is now being trapped in line with her body, again tiny seconds shaved off in returning.
Basel was also a welcome change from her earlier World’s campaigns when she would start with ground out, clunky three-setter wins, taking her time to get started. The best way to deal with her 19-19 dilemmas – which wrongly cast doubts on her mental strength – was to not lumber fatalistically towards a 19-all situation to start with. Both at Indonesia where she made the finals and in her opener at Basel, Sindhu seemed to be taking the initiative early.
Sterner tests from Chinese Taipei await her – Tai Tzu Ying might come up in quarters, though there’s Beiwen Zhang who’s tripped her up a few important times in between.
The women’s singles draw was cleaved open after top-seed Akane Yamaguchi was ousted — seemingly surprised by her Singaporean opponent’s aggressive attack. Sindhu though has all the firepower stacked against her in her own half. Tai Tzu Ying made plenty of errors to raise hopes in her opener playing just before Sindhu.
But her sprint to the finish was equally quick as she unleashed her pin-pricks one after the other to hustle out Indonesian Fitriani Fitriani, who briefly looked like a rare 20-year-old who knew exactly how to unsettle Tai Tzu Ying.
Sindhu, meanwhile, came up against a tall Pai who was doing enough to work her to four corners of the court and prise out errors on some simple net returns. Still Sindhu looks far more in control of her game and in the ability to jog back the plan to where she needs it to be, even when put in tough spots.
As such all of the top women’s singles players seem to be approaching Basel as a prep to Tokyo, and it won’t be surprising if they are operating at a fraction of their skill-set even as they tweak large-scale and nip and tuck bits, ahead of the Olympics.
So, Marin’s cautionary absence, Yamaguchi’s erring exit, Saina’s measured run-up and Tai Tzu’s slow sorcery need to be put into perspective.
The last few months have seen a sudden emergence of the next generation – the Singaporean Yeo Jia Min and Indonesian Gregoria Tunjung and a pair of Koreans and Chinese also in the mix. Even the golden generation of women’s singles fighters will need to up their games to deal with the onrush of the young ones while they battle amongst themselves for the Tokyo honours in a year’s time.
Not all cards thence will be revealed at Basel. And Sindhu’s outing at her 7th World Championship (she has 4 medals from 6) needs to be seen within that framework. There’s bound to be nervous energy as she reshapes her game, it’s a good start with some confident stance and striding.