The relentless questioning over why just a silver and not a gold for PV Sindhu will never stop. What do you think they asked Rafael Nadal, heading into Wimbledon 2008 – after those two lost finals in 2006 and ‘07? Or what possibly could have been the media chit-chat about 2006, ‘07, ‘08 finalist Roger Federer going into the 2009 French Open? The reason why Sindhu’s silver was so dissected, the reason why she was skewered on every occasion for the missing last piece of the jigsaw, was that the world considered the 23-year-old to be worthy of the top spot on the podium.
Before she strung together a game – as taut as her racquet strings – pieced together from scars of six previous top-class finals losses to beat Nozomi Okuhara 21-19, 21-17 at the World Tour Finals on Sunday, Sindhu underwent an, at times unfair, inquisition into her mental brittleness and incomplete game – missing a stroke here and desiring a tactical tweak there. What she presented on Sunday was a literal chiselling by a sculptor of all those jagged edges and jutting corners.
Since the criticism first started getting thrown at her – at the World Championships in 2017, and headlines attempted to euphemistically explain an obvious occurrence – one player wins, the other loses, one gets gold, other has no choice but to settle for silver – Sindhu’s game has come a long way. She is stronger now in her smashing shoulder, her erstwhile awkward body defence is solid enough now that on Sunday Okuhara was forced to target the flank-lines, three times hitting wide at crucial stages. Sindhu’s improved backhand and net game have tightened her retrieving. And unlike the Olympics where she simply bulldozed her way with a one-dimensional attacking game and speed, on Sunday, sensing the slow shuttle which made smashing impotent, Sindhu morphed into a long-rally specialist, having purged the urge to go for the tempting kills.
Through the match, coach Pullela Gopichand would instruct her to keep her body language strong and upright whenever the Japanese came back into contention. From 6-14 down, Okuhara would lay the simplest of traps – prolonging rallies to tire out Sindhu. The Indian was trading in simplicity too – dragging Okuhara to the net backhand corner persistently, and opening up the back-court for herself. The Japanese would retrieve alright, her net game sharper than the Indian’s, even as a couple of Sindhu lifts would get muffled in the mesh. But it was Sindhu’s insistence on trying to outdo Okuhara at her own game of long rallies that got to the Japanese. “I became nervous because I didn’t know what she was doing. She was not aggressive at all today, but I couldn’t counter her. In the end stage I slowed it down, tried to play long rally but she was prepared,” Okuhara would say later.
Breaking the resolve
The most monstrous rally came at 16-all in the opener – over 20 high tosses from each player, as if they were competing to send the shuttle into the highest orbit. Okuhara would claim that one and Sindhu was on her haunches, but it had broken the World No 2’s resolve too. She would attempt two unsuccessful smashes along the lines, and in a clear role-reversal, allow her nerves to puddle into a pool of errors at the finish. Sindhu would stay tall and solid, and take the first game.
The Indian jumped at referrals like a kid at a candystore – running out of challenges at 20-18 in the opener, and starting the next set promptly with another ballsy challenge on the first point itself. But her challenge was vindicated. But some of Okuhara’s attempts – the reverse sliced drops and cross-courts would work, even as she had a wretched time with her high serves, tosses and sideline outs.
Sindhu’s virtue on the day lay in staying patient and going for Okuhara’s backhand at the baseline whenever opportunities presented themselves. The biggest improvement for her is that her centre of gravity is now lower after core strength training, she’s bending much more, which means her game is shaping up to explode. The win would come from a string of patiently- constructed points sending a push into a yawning court with Okuhara stranded at the net.
Slumping to the floor and tearing up as soon as she won, Sindhu said she was thrilled at finally crossing the hurdle. She was almost wistful when she said, “Yes, now you people will not ask me about why I keep losing finals. Because all the time, it was like, ‘you are coming in the final and not winning’. But in a way it was good for me. To take it in the positive sense, because people kept asking me and targeting me (on always losing finals), I had to literally think what’s happening. I found the answers.”