Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Sindhu transformation

Up against the reigning two-time badminton champion, the top-ranked Carolina Marin, in the gold medal match at the Olympics, P.V. Sindhu was expected to give it her all. And she did. More than the results, what stood out this month was the manner in which she played. Moving steadily towards becoming a more all-round player, she shed the tag of being ‘ever-so-inconsistent’. In the course of her campaign in Rio de Janeiro, she evolved into a champion, occupying the court as someone meant to be counted in a match, right to the end. In the final, Marin, despite losing the first game, not once played like anything less than the favourite she was; thereby she cast a confirmatory glow on Sindhu’s challenge. In the third game Sindhu evened the score at 10-10, till it finally slipped away. She has made history for India by winning a silver medal. But more than the medal, she has furthered the trail blazed by Saina Nehwal, firming up India’s place on the international badminton map. Match after match, Sindhu produced exemplary performances against higher-ranked rivals in the knockout phase. In fact, her three-game victory over Canada’s Hong Kong-born Michelle Li to reach the pre-quarterfinal was the turning point. Li had beaten Sindhu twice in the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Thereafter, Sindhu was more at ease. It is hard to believe that just a fortnight ago no one really gave her a chance at the medals podium.
All this while, despite two World Championship medals, Sindhu had remained in the shadow of Nehwal. She began her Olympics campaign with nothing to lose, and leaves the competition with everything to realistically aim for. With Nehwal tragically felled by an injury at the Olympics, Sindhu carried the dream forward, surprising even her fans with the punch in her strokes. Chief national coach Pullela Gopi Chand, who has overseen Sindhu’s game since she was eight, has often said that once she adds power to her strokes, she could be expected to realise her true potential. That she did so is a tribute too to the mentoring he has provided. A former All England Open champion, he has done more than anyone else to transform a sporting landscape in India where the odd individual occasionally cartwheels into the big league, into an ecosystem where clusters of excellence are nurtured. Such an endorsement of excellence could not have come from anywhere else. For badminton players, unlike their counterparts from tennis or golf, the Olympics are the biggest stage, and a medal at the Summer Games is their most valued prize. This is how, at just 21, Sindhu has already announced her place among the greats.

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