The change in guard was all too obvious. The high and mighty of the Badminton Association of India and the world body, representatives of the sponsors as well as Olympic gold medallist Carolina Marin were on the dais. But the pre-tournament press conference of the Yonex Sunrise India Open could not commence in the absence of PV Sindhu.
If one believes that the bigger the star, the later he or she arrives, Sindhu is definitely the reigning deity of Indian badminton at the moment. The television commercials promoting the tournament only focus on Sindhu and how she is all set to continue her dominant run at home – after the Syed Modi Grand Prix title and the Premier Badminton League with Chennai Smashers.
It was only when the organisers were told that Sindhu was minutes away that the programme began.
Saina, who was seated next to her erstwhile coach Pullela Gopichand prompting an awkward silence between the two, had to change her seat so that Sindhu could sit between her mentor Gopi and Carolina, her opponent in the memorable Rio final. The 2016 Olympics silver medallist, who came directly from another media event, left immediately after for another one.
There was a clear hierarchy at the event with other top Indian shuttlers – such as HS Prannoy, Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy — seated around the tables below the dais. But even if the change in her pre-eminent status miffed Saina, she was not going to show it. If anything, the London Olympics bronze medallist, who has done as much for the sport’s profile in India as anybody, took it in her stride and was more relaxed and open in her interactions with the media.
“When I started my career, there was no spotlight on me. So this is nothing new for me. It is sometimes good to have lower expectations and pressure,” she said referring to her lower profile these days.
The keen injury which put paid to her prospects in Rio necessitated surgery, and Saina admitted she is still feeling her way back. “It is never easy to come back after injury. The competition is always getting tougher, but I am trying to get as many matches as possible and hope to reach my full potential soon,” she said.
But the India Open at the Siri Fort Sports Complex could be the perfect tonic for Saina’s comeback. It has been the stage for two of the biggest achievements in her career. The 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medal took India past England and to the second spot in the overall medal table. Her triumph at the 2015 India Open Super Series, apart from a great victory in front of her adoring fans, also catapulted her to the world No.1 spot.
But it will only be Saina’s third tournament since going under the surgeon’s knife, and she knows the odds stacked against her. The struggles are not limited to the physical aspect of sport either.
“The surgery happens just like that, but you lose movement and touch. There is a sense of losing control. You become apprehensive, it shakes your confidence. There is a sense of fear that you could have a serious injury again. It takes time to recover,” the Hyderabadi said.
“The knee is improving and my movement is getting better. I am doing a lot of strengthening exercises but the knee still hurts a bit on the hard courts.”
The World No. 8 started the year with the title at the Malaysia Masters, but was eliminated by South Korean Sung Ji Hyun in two close games at the All England Open.
“It was a 50-50 match and could have gone either way. So I am confident that I will get my best form back, but can’t say how long it will take,” Saina reflected.
As far as Sindhu is concerned, she is basking in her status as the biggest icon in Indian badminton right now, but is still cagey with her responses. “Being the big star adds to my responsibility. I will not like to take any extra pressure and keep calm and give my best as the competition will be very tough,” is all she could offer.
The qualifiers take place on Tuesday with the main draw starting a day later. With the likes of Marin, Sung Ji Hyun and defending champion Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand, there is no guessing where the prestigious title is headed. But the sub-plot involving India’s top two stars will be keenly followed throughout the week.