PV Sindhu’s long march to the top of the World Championship podium has taken time. Immune to the impatient inquisitions of those who declared her weak in finals, the 24-year-old had gone about chiselling her game – fixing tiny bits of it, sharpening the rough edges and putting the puzzle together.
Beyond her coaches, Sindhu’s owes it to her opponents Carolina Marin, Nozomi Okuhara, Akane Yamaguchi, Tai Tzu-Ying as well as Saina Nehwal, losses to whom magnified her deficiencies and pushed her to go back to the drawing board and work that much harder. The helping hands from abroad have played too. A bit of Mulyo Handoyo here, a lot of Miss Kim Hyun there, along with an over-riding guiding direction from Pullela Gopichand, and solid physical strengthening under trainer Srikanth Verma has crystallised a game that can negotiate any conditions.
Sure the smashes rained down on Okuhara and flooded her in a pool of errors – 21-7, 21-7 – but Sindhu’s game has acquired dimensions that weren’t prominent two years ago. Okuhara and Chen Yufei might have fallen to an all-out assault but Tai Tzu-Ying and the earlier rounds demanded varied skills, including the receding fraction smash.
She’s far from complete still, and Tokyo will be the ultimate test. But Sindhu has come a long way since the time her critics frowned at the missing pieces – the wrist, the defence, the variations. Here’s a few things that have been milestones in the evolution of Sindhu’s game, which cannot be measured in titles:
It’s been the hallmark of every top Indian singles name – Prakash Padukone, Syed Modi, Pullela Gopichand, Saina at the 2012 Olympics, the current crop of talented men’s singles players and Sindhu increasingly in the last two years. It’s a safe shot, where the release angle of the smash, that might seem deep, comes quicker and falls shorter. It is especially effective for Sindhu who has a full-blooded power smash in the 350 kph range. While defending upwards, it dips classically.
It might not account for winners in her analysis, but Sindhu has used it conventionally as a set-up shot. It’s unhurried and medium pace, goes like a nice loopy return and the kill is on the subsequent shot – the soft net shot from the dribble. Don’t be surprised if after a chuckling half-smash, Sindhu isn’t ramping up for the big boomer, and instead takes a step towards the net for the follow-up.
What’s common to Zhang Ning, whose number of World Championship medal count Sindhu equalled, as well as the Danish champ with gorgeous curls and an equally mysterious game, Tine Baun, is their tall stature. Sindhu’s parents – both accomplished volleyball players – passed on the tall genes. But it was more than just the textbook physiological tall – the good genes were also about the tremendous load the body could take in training for the demanding physical conditioning she would be put through – not unlike Saina. It was about joints not too thin that could injure and a healthy stock of muscles. Good sports lineage helped and a sense of sport was drilled in. But this height also posed challenges in flexibility and agility at the front lunges and body defence. Sindhu hasn’t grown taller in the last two years.
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What’s changed is that her legs are sturdier and she’s not rocking on the court like a big boat on choppy seas. The assured footwork is significant. Once the hands start moving quicker still, and the feet stay light, Sindhu will have achieved the ideal Tall. God-gifted reach has a flip side – the body’s agility. It’s been a long, slow process for her trainers to fashion the bends and the lunges and landings.
The turning return on the smash – one that switches the shuttle across when her body is being peppered with smashes homing around the left hip mostly – used to be a straight heat-trace for the incoming missiles. For the entire swing of east Asian tournaments, including Indonesia where she made the finals, and carrying forward into the Worlds, Sindhu has turned the shuttle expertly for a point-picking defensive return. It’s an inside-out backhand flick played from the mid-court to the opponent’s forehand short corner. All wrist.
The trouble with Sindhu even when she won the Rio silver was how her wrist would be locked at least 70 per cent – not out of choice – which meant the grip restricted her options and made her variations – or lack thereof – predictable. Stroke-making in badminton is all about the grip and the position at point of contact. And loosening that lock – like a click on a suitcase strapper – has freed her up to provide variety. Even the aforementioned half-smash needed clipping the shuttle downwards with an action like flicking a switch.
With a sudden crack. It’s helping her conserve energy – while being deceptive – a loose wrist before the thwack! – and it’s adding a surprise element at the net or to change pace. The high-art of Van Goghian wrist-work, the Starry Night of it all, though is something visible in its developmental stages in Sindhu. This is a slice from the overhead side, down the line. It is the quickest attacking stroke from that position and terribly tough to pull off. To be used after 2-3 cross shots in the rally, needing immaculate control on the wrist, it’s what will bring her on par with the rest and give her physical game an edge at 19-all.
The toughest muscle to mould, Sindhu’s needed an edge of ruthlessness that wasn’t naturally present. But it wasn’t her strokes that got compromised. A fighter she always was, but Sindhu used to be prone to furrowing her brow when her opponents picked a bunch of points. A worried face turned to the coaching corner and a muddled mind that could clowd her response to the next point. Not this time.
She purses her lips now at worst, never losing the steely glint from her eye. It used to be something Saina had aced – giving away nothing of the storm within. Sindhu, with her stature, is doing it even better. This was most noticeable after she went a game down to Tai Tzu. She was within two points of going out of the World Championship. But it wasn’t just how she held on, at 20-all in the second. It was the entirety of the second game where she focused on clinically demystifying the magic, showing scant respect to a talent that relies on the bamboozle.
Apart from that, Sindhu admitted she has learnt to deal with finals, tutoring herself that it was any other round. She barely bumbled when conceding leads, sure that she’d tug them back. And finally, she gifted herself clarity – telling herself she couldn’t possibly feel pressured by wanting to win this for everyone else. It was best to try and do this, first and foremost, for herself.