Victory is a wild companion. It is intoxicating, but its embrace wears off sooner than dusk can herald the next dawn. It is only the truly great that can chase victory down and domesticate it just enough to turn it into an accompaniment. Pusarla Venkata Sindhu is clearly one of those young athletes with the appetite and attitude needed to tame victory into living in her backyard.
The Indian is on the verge of winning back-to-back Super Series titles to throw the gauntlet down to the leading ladies of badminton. It is her cherished ambition to become the world No 1 and win the All England to emulate her illustrious mentor, Pullela Gopichand. The young woman is not just ambitious, she is also in a tearing hurry.
The Olympic silver may seem like a great peak to some, but Sindhu is clearly treating it like a brief stop at the foot of the hill. If her two bronze medals in the world championship served as an appetizer, they sure have stoked a massive craving for glory.
Sindhu was busy raking in the rewards of her success in Rio and it wasn’t a real surprise to see her suffer early exits in Korea, Denmark and France. But in China and Hong Kong, she has discovered her true self, battling like a ferocious lioness to mark her own territory in the highly competitive world of badminton.
In a recent advertisement for a health drink, Sindhu is shown crouching low to retrieve the bird before pouncing on an opportunity to jump high and smash the shuttle with power.
Cut to the next scene, she is seen seated just a step below her coach Gopichand, apparently discussing the finer aspects of the sport. It is a narrative that does well to capture the secret behind the rise of this 21-year-old girl from Hyderabad.
The journey of Sindhu, from an aspiring middle class girl to an international star of acclaim has been a story written in belief, hard work and an ecosystem that nurtured her to near perfection.
I first met Sindhu when she was still a teenager, only to leave an hour later convinced about her future. Not only did the towering girl have a physical presence, but she also possessed a rare clarity of thought that could be the envy of many a parent with a teenaged child.
As she establishes herself as a force to reckon with on the badminton firmament, it is hard not to look back on her journey and marvel at the girl’s ability to march relentlessly towards the fulfilment of her potential.
Born of sporting heritage – both her parents were national volleyball players – Sindhu took to sport very early in her childhood. The alarm has been going off at 3.00 am inside the Pusarla household for over a dozen years now.
While her mother packed essentials, her father drove his young child nearly 25km every morning on a rickety scooter in the biting chill of the Hyderabad morning.
It was the routine necessary for them to reach the portals of the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy, where Sindhu honed her skills with an early morning master class from her coach.
Once she reached there, Sindhu was steadfast in just following the instructions offered by Gopi, who set her on a gruelling routine of skill, fitness and endurance that is bearing a rich harvest for the coach and ward.
I had once quizzed her over her playing schedule. “My coach decides my routine and where I should play. I just train and play as I am asked to by Gopi Anna,” she replied. It is this implicit arrangement between the guru and disciple that has laid the foundation for a bright future.
At some point last year, as Sindhu struggled with an ankle injury, there were some who wondered how the young girl might cope with a lengthy absence from the court and a lack of match practice. Even as we entered the Olympic season, Sindhu suffered a series of poor results with a restrained schedule.
Barely anyone gave her a chance at a deep run in the Olympics, with the attention still centred mainly on Saina Nehwal. “It has been slow progress,” admitted Sindhu when we spoke at a pre-Olympic event in New Delhi.
“But I am happy with the work we are doing. My ankle has healed completely and I am confident of playing well very soon,” she added. “I believe a limited schedule has in fact helped me, since I feel fresh and ready for the Olympics.”
Given the Indian obsession for Olympic medals, Sindhu’s run to the finals in Rio captivated millions of Indians. Badminton gained several new fans as Sindhu aroused and excited the nation with her exploits in Rio.
Over a thousand people made their way to the Gopichand Academy to witness the final on a large screen. It was the kind of kinship and interest that was unheard of for badminton in India.
Prakash Padukone was instrumental in giving Indian badminton a truly international stature. Syed Modi and Gopichand built on that foundation, but it is only now that the edifices are getting erected, slowly yet surely.
The exploits of Nehwal and Gopi’s success in establishing the need for a professional environment have fuelled a new generation of stars with global aspirations.
Sindhu could just be the first real beneficiary of the revolution that took shape over the past decade. She plays with great belief and makes no bones about challenging the world order.
Sindhu has the ingredients necessary to rise to the top of world badminton and compete for the biggest honours in badminton. At 21, the road to glory lay ahead and if the past two weeks are any indication, Sindhu is determined to travel far in her quest for true greatness.