She looked fit and focussed as she walked into the hotel in Jaipur. It was our first meeting in some months and my first question had to be on her fitness. Sporting the PV Sindhu smile, it was as if she was expecting it. “I am back to full fitness,” she said. “I did not want to take a chance and aggravate it. Hence the break. Now I am back to my 100 percent and have been training well. The next four tournaments – Malaysia, France, All England and Swiss – will tell me where I stand.”
Her father, who was with her, sounded cautiously optimistic. “Prakash [Padukone] will probably with her at the All England and then in Paris,” said PV Ramana. “That should help. If you ask me, I am optimistic. The next four tournaments will give an idea and she can then decide the way forward based on how she performs in the next one month.”
Given what she has achieved, and it being an Olympic year, there will be no let-up in expectations. “There is always pressure,” said Sindhu. “If you play elite sport, pressure is a constant. The key is how you handle this pressure. For me, playing for the tricolour is always extra motivation. During the Commonwealth Games, I was playing with pain. But giving up wasn’t an option. The gold medal was for India. Maybe it is because I had a silver and a bronze, but not a gold. I wanted it badly.”
Speaking of Paris, she has a silver and a bronze at the Olympics but not the gold. When I reminded her, taking a cue from what she had said, Sindhu was all smiles. “Who knows?” she said, and I did see a glint in her eye as she said it.
Needless to say, the odds are stacked against Sindhu. Chen Yu fei, Tai Tzu Ying and An Se Young are currently playing a few notches higher, and even Akane Yamaguchi, Gregoria Tunjung and He Bing Jiao could prove to be tough opponents for Sindhu. But then, the Olympics are different. It is also about the experience of the big stage and the ability to lift your game on the biggest stage of all.
With Sindhu, she knows it. Five World Championship medals and two Olympic medals are proof. And that’s why to write her off is foolhardy. A confident Sindhu, with Prakash Padukone by her side, could easily surprise a few, and with less of the spotlight on her, she may well enjoy Paris more than Tokyo. In badminton, the expectations are way more from Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty than Sindhu. Even HS Prannoy is one to look at. In that sense, Sindhu is somewhat flying under the radar going into the Olympics. That isn’t necessarily bad for someone who knows what it is all about.
As I write this, she is already in Malaysia getting ready for one more comeback. From the 2015 injury, which could have been career threatening, to the one after the Commonwealth Games, Sindhu is one who knows how difficult comebacks are. But this one is perhaps the most difficult of them all. Her sport has moved forward and some of her opponents have raised their game to a very different level. Sindhu knows it and is aware that if she has to be on the podium in Paris, it will take a lot of doing.
No Indian woman has done what she has and if she makes Paris her own, she would justly be called the GOAT of Indian Olympic sport. When I said this to her, all she did was smile. “I am not thinking of the result,” she told me. “All I am thinking of is to make a strong comeback and assess where I stand. Things will surely get better. And the one thing I can promise you is there will not be any dearth of effort. Paris is about the tricolour and that’s the ultimate motivation for me, and the reason why I play sport.”
As I wished her well, I could see the smile give way to a slightly pensive face. Sindhu knows she is up against it. But as someone who knows her well, all I will say is that it would be folly to write her off.
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