Sindhu and her New Coach Need to Channel the Spirit of 2016

PV Sindhu has lost yet another match against Beiwen Zhang, her nemesis, at the Australian Open. And in all fairness, Sindhu looked below par. Despite making it 16-16 in the second game, she then conceded four straight points to Zhang and it was all over in no time. It isn’t the first time this has happened, and is now becoming a cause for worry. Her slump shows no signs of stopping and with the Olympic qualification cycle on, there is enough reason for worry if you are an Indian badminton fan.

But then, every great player goes through a slump. Zhang, 33, has made it back after an operation. She beat Chen Yu Fei in Tokyo just last week, and is now in another semi-final. That’s what sport is all about. You will lose more than you win, but the best will come back from a low and get to the top again. Sport tests you, and Sindhu is no stranger to that. She is one of India’s greatest athletes of all time, and has seen it all. Her five World Championship medals alone are proof. The slump won’t define her. The comeback will. And yes, I remain hopeful she will make it back. With a new coach by her side, she needs to get things right mentally more than anything. At the moment, she is fragile. The losses have dented her confidence. And each time she concedes a lead, there is a kind of panic in her game. The smashes dry up, and it is as if she is desperately trying not to make a mistake. And it is this fear of failure that she needs to overcome. Play the game that made her who she is. Think back and visualise how she got there.

It is also important for every Sindhu supporter to be with her in these times. She needs them more than ever and rather than writing her off, this is when people should stand by her and give her the backing she needs. When things are going great, an athlete of her calibre needs no one. She is on autopilot. Now is the time when a good word will help. However much she tries to stay off social media, things will filter down to her and this is when Indian fans need to protect her. Stand up for her, and be there. For this too shall pass.

It was in June 2015 that Gopi [Pullela Gopichand] called Sindhu to his office at his academy in Gachibowli and handed her a letter. She had just lost in the Australian Open, and wasn’t in the best frame of mind. It was a first in their 14-year association, and listed the ‘dos and don’ts’ for the next eight months. And among them was a clause that the 20-year-old Sindhu would have to surrender her phone to her coach. No phone and no gastronomic indulgence – Gopi was coming down hard on the talented Sindhu. Talent, he argued, needed to be honed to win an Olympic medal, and he was determined to leave nothing to chance.

“I had the 2010 Asian Games in mind,” said Gopi while looking back on those eight months that were the making of a legendary sporting career. “While coming back from Guangzhou, I had called Sindhu and her father and said I will see you at 4:30am the next morning. And all she said was yes. That’s what made me feel I could push her more. Yes, I was a little worried about the phone because among all my students, she is the fastest to respond to a phone message. Clearly, she is hooked on to the gadget. But it was a distraction we could do without.”

Also Read: Hafiz Hashim, her New Coach, Has Work Cut Out with PV Sindhu

“I did not think he meant it seriously,” said Sindhu, looking back. “Definitely not about the phone. How could I not have a phone?! And yet, when he gave me the letter, I had instinctively said yes. So when I looked back in the evening, there was nothing much I could do because I had already agreed to the conditions.”

And yes, that’s why she is different. A very different champion who is unflustered with all the fame. Fast forward to November 2016, and having already lost the first game and down three match points against her higher-ranked Korean opponent, even the most ardent Sindhu fan couldn’t have imagined how the script would unfold. Sindhu, clearly, was looking at a semi-final ouster, better than her two second-round showings at the Danish and French Opens, but nowhere near her Rio exploits. That’s when the never-say-never attitude, first seen in Rio in the match against Wang Yihan in the quarterfinal, came to the fore. Three straight points, and all of a sudden, the Korean was under pressure. She could sense the match slipping away and Sindhu gradually scripting a revival. Out came the smashes and the screams, and all of a sudden, her net play was a couple of notches better. And most importantly in a battle of attrition, Sindhu was there to retrieve everything Sung Ji Hyun threw at her. A couple of punishing rallies and the Indian, from a position of no return, had levelled the match at one game all.

The third game was another slug fest, and it boiled down to endurance and temperament. Having lost all such close matches in the past, it was difficult to predict a Sindhu victory. However, this was a very different Sindhu, one who had learnt the art of winning the big contests. And despite Sung’s best efforts, it was Sindhu who looked the dominant player throughout the third game, eventually closing it out with a superb crosscourt smash.

She then went on to win the final and prove conclusively that Rio was no flash in the pan.

Sindhu was flooded with endorsement offers after Rio, a victory that made her one of Indian sport’s pin-up stars. Tokyo added to the list. Only Virat Kohli had more endorsements than her at one point. But that did not changed her routine. You will still see her do her usual drills with diligence and passion. She knows that’s where she belongs. The court, the racket, the shuttle and, most importantly, the effort – that’s what Sindhu has been all about.

To go back to how the fabled journey started.

Sindhu had just lost a hard-fought first-round match at the Australian Open in May 2015, against Yihan Wang, a former world No. 1 and London Olympics silver medallist. But Gopi, her coach and mentor, wasn’t flustered. Sindhu’s sister Divya was in Australia, and there wouldn’t be much scarring from the defeat with family around. Rather, the next few days in Melbourne would be her last few days of enjoyment for twelve months. Gopi, in fact, said as much to Sindhu, and all restrictions on food and late nights were removed temporarily. It was party time. The storm before the lull. Merriment before the calm. The last few days before going into hard Olympic labour.

By the time the duo reached Rio, Sindhu was in top physical shape. But this was the Olympics, the biggest sports spectacle of all, and it was not only about being in good physical condition. Pressure, nervousness and control of the mind were key to success. Sindhu, understandably, was nervous. This was her first Olympics and she started the competition poorly against Michelle Li of Canada, losing the first game. Years of hard work were now riding on the second game, and Gopi sitting in her corner kept trying to free her mind. She did play a good second game, but in the third, she was down 1-4 at the start. Sindhu had to dig deep. For months, she had been told to play one particular shot, and for months she had refused to oblige. In practice, it worked, but in match situations she just wasn’t able to get it going. For some reason, it just didn’t happen. And now all of a sudden in Rio – in what was, in Sindhu’s words, “the moment it all changed” – the backhand crosscourt defensive block came out. Balance, poise, positioning – it was a perfect stroke. As perfect as one could hit it. Even Gopi was surprised. Something indeed had happened, and Michelle Li was soon shown the door 21-17 in the third game.

For Gopi and Sindhu, the quest for a medal was underway. For India, a revolution had begun.

Now Hafiz Hashim, an All England Champion himself, has his work cut out as Sindhu’s coach. He needs to do a Gopi, and step up for her. Make her feel the part mentally, and the rest will take care of itself. It will be a tough few days to the World Championships. But again, she has won five medals there, and is one of the most successful ever. Can she dig deep? Can Hafiz make her feel that she can? How the pair looks at things could well define the next few months for Sindhu. All we need to do is support her. Stay positive and hope things fall into place like they always have in the past.

Also Read: PV Sindhu: The Story of India’s Wonder Woman in Rio

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