PV Sindhu’s second-round defeat at the hands of Korean Sung Ji-Hyun at the Malaysia Open comes on the heels of her semi-final departure at the India Open and the first round loss at All England against the same opponent. While these losses would be a dampener for her fans, a look at the bigger picture would show there is hardly any reason for despair.
As was the case with her defeat to He Bingjiao on home turf last weekend, Sindhu was not too perturbed after her 21-18, 21-7 defeat at Kuala Lumpur. “I couldn’t control the shuttle and made too many unforced errors. There was a lot of drift today. I think I should’ve played more into the court. I was too nervous. Physically I’m feeling fine,” she said after the match.
The Olympic qualification cycle will begin shortly and the world championships are scheduled for August. Sindhu’s results come in fits and starts, if one goes by her record over the last couple of seasons.
She makes it a point to peak for the bigger events, which explains her multiple medals at the World Championships, as well as the crucial podiums at Asian Games, Superseries Finals and the Rio Olympics silver.
Sindhu won just one title last year, at the fag end of the season, but was a losing finalist in five tournaments. This has given rise to the narrative that she struggles in big matches, but she has to contend with a plethora of highly talented opponents – from Tai Tzu-Ying and Carlonia Marin to the Japanese duo of Nozomi Okuhara and Akane Yamaguchi. Chen Yufei, He Bingjao and Ratchanok Intanon only add to the difficulty quotient.
In 2018, she peaked in the middle of the year, finishing runner-up in three successive tournaments – Thailand Open, BWF World Championships and the Asian Games, the last two being highly contested events on the calendar. The year before, she reached the final of the World Championship and the Korea Open, her next tournament. She ended the year with another two finals in succession – the Hong Kong Open and the Superseries Finals. It explains why Sindhu, though disappointed after her loss to Bingjiao on Saturday, was not overly downcast.
The heavy BWF schedule hardly gives the top players any rest to recover from injuries or work on areas that need improvement. The best the shuttlers can hope to do is build up towards a major tournament – World Championships, All England, the season finale, or the quadrennial Olympics and Asian Games – and peak in those targeted periods. That’s what Sindhu did in 2016. Her results leading up to the Rio Games were nothing much to write home about, but we know what happened there.
It’s a trend that’s been recurrent through her career. She was still on the second rung of Grand Prix meets in the lead up to her first Worlds bronze in 2013. Four first-round losses on the Super Series circuit preceded her 2014 bronze, though she tended to prioritise home SS at Delhi and GPs at Lucknow as well as Asian championships. Perhaps the only exception was the Macau Open that she would unfailingly pick at the fag-end of the season.
In the lead-up to Rio in August 2016, starting from May 2015, Sindhu had 15 tournament exits in the first or second round, and just a top-rung final at Denmark in October of previous season in the lead-up.
Sindhu’s ranking had hovered around No 13 a year before Rio and she went into the Games at a sedate, unremarkable World No 10 before her run to silver-medal. 2017 had 6 tournaments where Sindhu didn’t cross the quarterfinals, before she ran up to the finals at Glasgow. By 2018, a year which demanded Sindhu to peak for both the CWG and Asian Games with a World Championship thrown in between, the 23-year-old had perfected the art working up towards the three finals.
In fact the year-ending World Tour Finals crown, came on the back of six finishes inside of the quarterfinals, and in a year where she saved her best for the last.
Every top player apart from Sindhu – Tai Tzu, Ratchanok, Yamaguchi, Okuhara, Marin as well as Saina – have been forced to take extended breaks since the Rio Games. But Sindhu’s smart scheduling has meant that not only is she turning up for every big final on the calendar, but also not fallen to injury breaks that impede players. Modest returns from the regular circuit – with early exits – are then hardly something to carp about, given that Sindhu is focussed on the big one at Tokyo and little save the Worlds in August this year, is worth the exerting.