At 7.38 pm on Tuesday, August 27, the private jet carrying P V Sindhu lands at Begumpet airport in Hyderabad. Nearly 10 hours after she had originally planned, and 48 hours after she became India’s first world champion in badminton.
Sindhu had reached Delhi Monday night and booked an onward flight to Hyderabad, her home, for early next morning. There was no way, though, that she could sneak out of Delhi just like that, was there?
So her first port of call on Tuesday is 9, Krishna Menon Marg, the residence of Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju, who hosts her for breakfast. The morning flight to Hyderabad is rescheduled to noon. Even before that meeting is over, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, back from the G7 summit in France just hours earlier, invites her to 7, Lok Kalyan Marg. Another flight cancellation.
Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jaganmohan Reddy calls next, inviting Sindhu over for evening tea. For a moment it seems Sindhu will have to be Vijayawada-bound first. But the only direct flight from Delhi to Vijayawada gets cancelled, meaning more change in plans.
In Hyderabad, Sindhu’s mother Vijaya gets restless, with no clarity on when and if she would reach Hyderabad. So Vijaya hops onto a flight to Delhi herself.
Meanwhile, at the city’s SAI Gopichand Academy, manager Maqdoom Ahmed’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing. He is in charge of organising a welcome ceremony. Since morning, Ahmed has received 258 calls, mostly from people keen to know Sindhu’s whereabouts. There’s nothing he can share.
Amidst the wait for Sindhu, Sai Praneeth — the first Indian male world championship medallist in 36 years — arrives at the academy, without much fanfare. Every second of his 10-minute interaction with the press, Praneeth holds up his bronze medal, also won at the World Championship in Basel, Switzerland, and shows it in every direction. Five minutes in, he’s asked about Sindhu’s gold. The interaction, after that, ceases to be about him.
In the far corner of the hall, Saina Nehwal is in the middle of an intense workout. Suddenly, there’s some action. The caretakers of the academy are cleaning the courts next to Saina to lay out a red carpet. Her training over, Saina leaves soon after.
It turns out that Telangana Badminton Association vice-president V Chamundeswaranath has arranged a jet to bring Sindhu, her parents and coach Pullela Gopichand home. They call Chamundeswaranath ‘car uncle’ here, for he presents a four-wheeler to almost every athlete who accomplishes something major. He receives Sindhu at the tarmac and announces his gift for her is a Mercedes.
But before she gets to the academy, the champion has to cross a city that seems to have stopped for her. A convoy of four white SUVs accompanies her black BMW past a congested road, a flyover lined by glittering malls, the upscale Banjara Hills, one of her own hoardings, the old Mumbai highway, to finally the academy at the IT hub of Gachibowli, where more than 50 mediapersons are waiting for her.
Sindhu begins with an apology for the delay. Then, for the next three hours, she obliges anyone who seeks a one-on-one interview, even as her father replies to each one of the 600-plus WhatsApp messages he has received. “Just a, ‘Thank you, namaskara’,” Ramana says, before taking a chair next to his wife.
They sit there until midnight, watching Sindhu talk about her accomplishment. Not uttering a word. Unable to stop smiling.
At a garage-turned-gym in the basement of the Chatrasal Stadium in North Delhi, Sushil Kumar takes an unscheduled break from training. The wrestler is preparing for his own World Championship, which begins in a fortnight, but he can’t stop talking about Sindhu. “Kamaal hee kar diya (She has done wonders),” he gushes. “Has anyone ever dominated a final like this?”
Sindhu’s 21-7 21-7 demolition of Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara in the final of the World Championship has stirred several such conversations, including on whether she is now India’s greatest sportsperson, given her domination of the game. Sushil, a two-time Olympic medallist and a former world champion, can be a strong contender for the title. But he is in complete awe of Sindhu.
Sindhu has now won medals of all types and colours, at tournaments big and small. Two World Championship silver medals and as many bronze, an Olympic silver, a couple of silver and bronze at Asian and Commonwealth Games each, apart from a dozen other titles. And she’s only 24.
When Sushil first met her in June 2013, at a Mumbai event organised by Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), Sindhu’s backers, she was yet to make her World Championship debut. Dressed in a collared white T-shirt and blue jeans, the shy 17-year-old stood in a corner for most of the evening, speaking only when spoken to.
“She told me about her training schedule. I immediately turned to Viren (Rasquinha, OGQ’s CEO, and former India hockey captain) and told him Sindhu will soon become a world champion,” Sushil says. “Itni tapasya karoge toh safalta milni hee hai (if you put in so much effort, you are bound to succeed).”
Her tapasya is part of badminton folklore, at least in her hometown. They talk of a 10-year-old Sindhu, play kit slung over shoulders, holding her father tightly as he drove her on a scooter to the Gopichand Academy at 4 every morning, a 56-km journey to-and-fro from her house in Secunderabad. “My wife and I had sports quota jobs and earned around Rs 24,000 per month each. One person’s entire salary would go into her training,” Ramana says.
In a photo at the Gopichand Academy, the child Sindhu is seen jumping in the air along with other trainees, all of the same height. Over the next four years, she would outgrow them both physically and technically. “Her sincerity… I knew she would become a national champion,” Ramana says.
The morning after the arrival at Hyderabad begins the same way for Sindhu, with more interviews. She fields the questions confidently, not showing the jet lag, dressed in a casual red T-shirt and black tracksuit. By 10 am, the number of mediapersons at the family home, located in a leafy and quiet neighbourhood, has swelled to around two dozen reporters and camera crews.
Unlike at the Delhi airport, when the CISF had to rescue her from frenzied mediapersons seeking her out on arrival from Switzerland, where she had been crowned the world champion a day earlier, here they patiently await their turn. Sindhu is as uncomplaining, answering almost the same questions asked by different people for almost four hours.
“How does it feel?” they ask.
“Yet to completely sink in,” she replies.
“What do you have to say about your finals phobia?”
“People say things. This time, my racquet did the talking.”
“Can you now win gold at the Olympics?”
“I want to feel this moment now. I want to enjoy this.”
At last count, Sindhu has given 53 interviews since returning to India, each an average of 10 minutes. That’s 530 minutes of questions and answers, over a final that was just 37 minutes long. The ‘finals phobia’ is mentioned just as many times as Sindhu’s gold — so much so that some people actually believe she won a silver.
Like Vijay Kumar, who works at a jewellery store in a mall. “Silver jeeti, woich na (The one who won silver, right)?” he responds when asked if he has heard of Sindhu. “No, a world champion,” you tell her. He doesn’t believe it, till Google affirms so.
Sindhu doesn’t seem affected by the reputation that trails her, of ‘settling for silver’. However, in a poignant moment at home, she reaches out for last year’s World Championship silver kept in her medal cabinet, holds this year’s gold next to it, and whispers ever so slightly, “Finally”.
The IT hub of Hyderabad is the processing centre of India’s finest badminton players. Gopichand has two academies in Gachibowli; one he runs himself and the other in collaboration with the Sports Authority of India (SAI).
The heavy, salty smell of sweat hangs heavy as echoes of shuttles being thwacked reverberate across a long rectangular hall at the Gopichand Academy. Like Sindhu, hundreds of shuttlers, both established and aspiring, come here every day for sessions that start as early as 4 am.
But it’s the 5 am session that is special. “The seniors’ batch begins at 8.30 am, so if there’s a specific issue with an elite player’s game or any correction needed, Gopi bhaiya will himself conduct a session at 5 for an hour or so. After that, the player joins the regular session,” says national coach Mohammed Siyadat Ullah.
Around four years ago, Sindhu had been summoned for one such session. She had a full repertoire of shots — cross-court and down-the-line drops, powerful smashes and the ability to engage in long, draining rallies. But there was one glaring weakness. “Her body language. It was passive and it became pronounced when she played aggressive opponents,” Siyadat says.
He recalls Sindhu’s first meeting with 2016 Olympic champion Carolina Marin, in the first round of the 2011 Maldives Open. The Spaniard, he says, wasn’t at the kind of level she is now but cheered every winning point with a loud grunt. That got to Sindhu.
“Sindhu lost the first game because of that, but recovered and won the other two,” Siyadat says. Sindhu went on to even win the tournament, her first international title, but it was clear aggressive opponents could get to her.
So, Gopichand instructed Sindhu’s sparring partners to do just that: play aggressively, yell and try all kinds of tricks to upset her. Ultimately, he began insisting that Sindhu shout between points herself, according to Rajendra Kumar, another coach at the academy. “Those sessions were all about that. Gopi sir wanted her to stop being passive on court. He would stand on the side of the court and not let her go until she instinctively yelled after winning a point,” says Rajendra.
Gopichand was so relentless that Sindhu often broke down. But, with time, the rationale behind the need to show aggression was evident to her. The result was a new Sindhu, without her softness and with a different on-court personality. Not passive-aggressive. Just plain, no-holds-barred aggression.
The full scope of it was on display last week, especially in the way Sindhu decimated her last two opponents — Chen Yufei of China and Japan’s Okuhara — at the World Championship.
Gopichand says he has never seen such an exhibition of controlled, sustained aggression as a player or coach. “For me, it was like a tennis final where you are playing on grass and someone with a big serve and volley runs away with the match. I tried thinking from Okuhara’s side, what is it she could do to beat Sindhu,” Gopichand says. “And I couldn’t see her do anything. Real, total domination.”
“So would you, at your prime, be able to beat Sindhu?” Gopichand is asked. He lets Sindhu take that one. She laughs: “I won’t say yes, but you never know. If I say yes, the training tomorrow will be very hard.”
Shyness? What shyness?
Those who knew her as the “always smiling” Sindhu can be taken aback by her on-court demeanour. But it remains her game face. Off court, Sindhu remains the sensitive, soft-spoken person her confidantes attest she is.
“Sindhu barely talks about badminton when she isn’t playing,” says Ishita Raju, one of her close friends. “There are a lot of things she likes doing. She is into nail art, so there is a lot of that. We recently got piercings done. And when there’s not much to do, we go out for movies. She’s a big movie buff, mainly Telugu films.”
In fact, over lunch on Wednesday, the world’s 13th-placed athlete in Forbes’s list of highest-paid athletes (total earnings of approximately Rs 40 crore) grimaces at the fact that she will miss the opening show of the much-hyped, Prabhas-starrer Sahoo, because of a commercial commitment. And there are quite a few.
Sindhu is omnipresent in Hyderabad. Billboards with her photos hang at the city centre; and tiny airport screens feature her. She isn’t mobbed on the streets — yet — but she does attract curious glances. “It takes some time for people to realise it’s her. By the time they do, she’s gone,” says Ishita, who met Sindhu at the Gopichand Academy six years ago.
One reason could be Sindhu’s lack of starry airs. “She never behaves badly,” says Vimala Reddy, the Sports Director at
St Ann’s College, where Sindhu got
enrolled in Class 11. Just 10 days before the World Championship, she got her MBA degree in Human Resources, after having graduated in B.Com.
College life for Sindhu was, for obvious reasons, different. She was exempted from morning lectures to ensure her training wasn’t impacted and allowed to leave early. Once every week, she would sit in the staff room where, one by one, her teachers would repeat their lessons for her to finish her course. “Since she did not have the time to prepare notes, the teachers did that for her,” says Reddy, adding that she herself “took care” of Sindhu’s attendance.
Reddy adds that she will soon visit Sindhu with a bouquet of flowers. “Sindhu loves flowers a lot.”
The new world champion’s other indulgence is biryani. Sitting at the counter of a crowded restaurant, Mohammad Rabbani holds up his phone to show, a) he has Sindhu’s number, and b) he called her to congratulate her for the gold medal.
Rabbani is the owner of the popular biryani Hyderabad chain Shah Ghouse. At lunch, delivery boys are jostling about at the Gachibowli branch while the queue of customers has spilled onto the main road. Rabbani counts Sindhu as among his loyal customers; along with London Olympics bronze medallist shooter Gagan Narang.
Sindhu’s go-to biryani, Rabbani says, is ‘Shah Ghouse Special’, which has extra pieces of meat and is made in desi ghee. “Whenever she feels like eating biryani, she calls me directly and I either deliver it personally or send someone from my family,” the 50-year-old says. “Maybe, I’ll send some biryani as a goodwill gesture for her victory. Is there a better way to celebrate?”
It takes an entire system to produce a world champion. In Sindhu’s case, it includes parents who quit jobs to focus on her, her father taking care of her travel itinerary and other commitments, her mother the finances; a coach who gave her so much attention that many others got insecure; and a government and private machinery that stood behind her financially. This is not including the teachers who helped any way they could and the restaurant owner who was there when she needed some indulgence.
“It just proves what I have long believed,” says Jwala Gutta, who won India its first world championship medal in 2011, a doubles bronze with Ashwini Ponappa. “If there is a proper support system that takes care of all the off-court needs of an athlete, we will produce world champions.”
Gutta-Ponappa’s was India’s first big badminton medal of this decade, putting the country among the sport’s elite. And Gutta isn’t shy to underline that it came without the kind of support Sindhu gets. Not belittling Sindhu’s gold, she says, “It’s a fact — when we played, we were not supported. Even by the coach (Gopichand).”
While Gutta’s outspokenness has made her a pariah of sorts in the sport, she hopes Sindhu uses her stature to speak up. “I hope she doesn’t become the always-smiling Sindhu. The sweet girl who likes sweet little girly things like painting her nails, wearing good clothes.”
Herself among India’s most glamorous players, Gutta hastens to add that there is nothing wrong with dressing up — “somehow there’s a perception a sportswoman in India cannot do that”. Her message is something else. “Millions of people now look up to Sindhu,” Gutta points out. “She better have an opinion (on issues), otherwise the World Championship medal will have no meaning in the future. Eventually, what people will remember is her personality.”
These concerns are far from Sindhu’s mind right now. She is thinking ahead to the China and Korea Opens, the next two tournaments. Thursday morning saw Sindhu back in action at the Suchitra Academy, her alternative training venue.
Gopichand too has started planning, to add newer dimensions to her game. “No one knew Sindhu during the Rio Olympics. Now, she will enter Tokyo with a big target on her back,” he says. “We’ll have to evolve. We’ll be happy to share more happiness.”
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