On the eve of her World Tour Finals title-decider against Nozomi Okuhara, PV Sindhu was sent a text of encouragement by someone who was a one-third slice of her ‘finals jinx.’ Having snuck away the Olympics and this year’s World Championships from the Indian and following the Guangzhou finals from Spain on TV, Carolina Marin was rooting for her opponent, also a friend. “Finally! I’m really happy she could break this jinx,” Marin says, passing on the Hyderabad franchise’s leadership to Sindhu this year, while she settles into Pune 7 Aces in the PBL. “I told her the day before that I’m with her, and I wished her best of luck. Told her ‘you can do it, just believe in yourself,” she says, on her arrival for the fresh league season.
These are two of the highest performers in the supremely competitive sport – both conquering uncharted territories for their respective countries. Unlike China, Japan or Indonesia – countries steeped in success and with SOPs for how to deal with failures – both Carolina and Sindhu have learnt to figure out the flip-side of success on their own. For Sindhu, it might have been about crossing the final hurdle. For 24-year-old Marin, it was answering the inexplicable melancholy of ‘what next’ post the Olympic gold.
Opening up about her struggles with post-Olympics loss of motivation, Marin said that she went through a torrid time on the court, post-Rio. It wasn’t until she regained the world title at China earlier this year – beating Sindhu again – that Marin was satisfied that she’d beaten her demons.
“There have been sacrifices in each of the three World Championships, but this third title is much different because I’d gone one-and-half year with no good results. It was difficult because sometimes you feel scared that you may no longer be the player you were in the past. So I just had to believe in myself and my team who helped me a lot and I won my third,” she recalls.
Two of the most stirring and demonstrative shuttlers on court, were fighting two very silent and hugely different battles when they crossed swords at Nanjing, in August.
Rio brought unprecedented attention to the Spaniard in her home country, known for a racquet sport played on Parisian clay. Rio was the most watched final in badminton, but post the felicitations and the testimonials, came the inevitable challenge of living upto the Olympic champion tag. Even before that came the vacuum of depression which young athletes go through – having achieved their life’s dreams even before turning 25.
“When you achieve all your dreams, it is like what else (is left)? What else is there to do, and on days I would think, ‘where do I go?’ This phase was not just for myself, it also happened to my team. It happened with my coach, who’d think, ‘our dream came true but now what else can we achieve?’ Sometimes it was difficult to motivate ourselves but we just had this conversation and we said, we wanted to do make some changes,” she recalls.
As intensely spontaneous as her combativeness on the court looks, reigniting that fire, was taking an awful lot of time as Marin went close to a year without any title of note.
“It’s very easy to say, but very tough to do,” Marin explains, adding, “I talked so much with my psychologist and with my coach Fernando (Rivas). We changed so many things in my mind. I needed to believe in myself and my team to make some changes if I had to get another good result. I could not be scared to change some things completely in myself,” she says. To the world, Marin’s aggression flows out of a tap, but it had taken three weeks of intense mental training before the World Championships to earn the third title. “It’s not happening now, but before the World Championships, I thought maybe I cannot win another big title,” she recalls.
Two days before Sindhu and Okuhara faced off at Glasgow, the Japanese had shredded Marin’s confidence despite a close-fought match. “My performance was good, but I got some troubles in my mental game. In the decider, she was leading 15-14 but it was very close. Suddenly something happened in my mind, and I felt like I cannot do this. Fear does bad things to the body, sometimes I try to control it, but sometimes you cant control. That time I couldn’t control it and I lost,” she remembers.
It was one of the many wretched days, though she slipped into that haze of being aimless, without warning. “It’s not like one day you wake up and slip into that phase. It’s daily where you start believing you can’t be the same player as before or maybe you cannot win any more titles. Or maybe you aren’t good enough to play against top players. So you think such stupid things!” she laughs.
It wasn’t the soccer-obsessed newspapers that were guilt-tripping her about losing form – they remained painfully oblivious and indifferent, reverting to their breathless commentaries on El Classico, after the first few days of revelry celebrating her gold. “It wasn’t anyone else saying anything to me. I just thought it myself. This is why my team helped me a lot,” she says.
Marin calls fear “stupid”, but she isn’t immune to how debilitating it can get. “My main fear is about something I cannot control – which tells me, be careful of this,” she says.
She would read excerpts from motivational books. “Not the books, but there were parts that I could take some information from. My friends and family used to call a lot while I had that bad period of my life. I’m grateful for that,” she says.
Marin stormed onto the scene in 2014 when she beat Olympic champion Xuerui Li at the World Championships in Denmark. “I won my first title unexpectedly and it was happening very fast. We’d prepared well but my goal at that Worlds was just to win a medal, not specific colour. So when I won semifinal – my coach asked me, ‘you already have a medal, now what colour do you want to get?’ I said, ‘Fernando, I would like to fight for the gold and we made good plans and I won,” she recalls.
In her second against Saina Nehwal, Marin had broken a bone in her foot in the lead-up, and was unsure of playing till a week before the Indonesia edition.
“We went to Indonesia just to try and see how it’s going. And suddenly I won again. Mentally I was prepared to win, but after the injury I had to alter my practice plans,” she said. The one against Sindhu needed a deeper makeover. “I had to change everything in my mind, just to believe in myself, in my team. And also not feel scared of any changes,” she says.
Her third World title was the most well-received back in Spain. “That’s when people started talking about her being the greatest-ever female shuttler. And she started receiving the sort of love that Spaniards feel for Iniesta,” her manager Ignacio Bengoechea, says. Coach Fernando Rivas recently declared that Spain wouldn’t find another like her for a 1000 years. “I was very impressed with what he said,” she laughs, adding that what makes Rivas tick is his ability to innovate in sport.
Ask her what she digs most about India, and she chortles ‘Indian food!’ Ask her what she tells her new Chinese fans who are delighted she’s learnt a smattering of Mandarin, and she says, “A bit, I learnt. I like to say ‘I like China, and I like to eat Chinese food’ in Chinese.” She’s currently immersed in the dark, gritty teen web series 30 Reasons Why, and can never switch channels if the TV’s playing, ‘Blood Diamond.’
Her all-time top idol is Rafael Nadal, and Carolina Marin insists there’s no bigger inspiration among women than her grandmother. “She was a fighter, in the way she just strived to get the best for her four children – my mum and her three brothers despite hardships.” Valour runs in the family.