We all made grave miscalculations.
We miscalculated how India would better its six medal tally from the 2012 London Olympic Games. We miscalculated how a bigger contingent would translate into a bigger medal haul. We miscalculated how much drama an Olympic wrestling quota could generate.
But most of all, we miscalculated which athletes were going to deliver medals at the Rio Olympics.
Vinesh Phogat and Saina Nehwal were two of the women who the country banked on for podium finishes. Both were tragically halted by knee injuries. What was agony for one athlete, became an opportunity for another. Sakshi Malik broke India's medal drought with an incredulous repechage comeback, winning a bronze. And PV Sindhu has now bettered her. She has taken the opportunity and the challenge – of being India’s lone female badminton representative – by the scruff of the neck.
Sindhu gave India a glimmer of hope when she made the round of 16, winning her must win group tie from a game down. Then she reached the quarter finals, only to draw China's Wang Yihan, the world number two. A billion pair of her eyeballs looked at her number nine seeding and thought, “Oh well, at least she got this far.”
She went further, with a straight sets win that was far from straight forward. In the semi final, she would not be denied the gold medal match, and dismantled the world number six in the second game. She also dismantled history, giving India its first shot at badminton gold, thus outdoing Nehwal, Prakash Padukone, and her coach Pullela Gopichand. That is a serious list.
We should have seen it coming. Since watching Nehwal win a bronze as a 17-year-old, she began taking steps towards her own date with the yellow metal. In 2013, she announced herself on the world stage by claiming a bronze at the World Championships. Then came her first Grand Prix Gold title, the Malaysian Open, followed by another at the Macau Open, where she would make a hat-trick of wins. A second consecutive World Championship bronze followed in 2014, as well as a Commonwealth bronze. While 2015 and 2016 did not yield as many titles, she arrived at Rio looking visibly fitter.
Why recreate what is essentially Sindhu’s Wikipedia page here? To provide context, about how she has contrived this moment, and why it will mean so much to her. A moment earned through endless hours spent on the court chasing goose feathers hit in corners by a coach who looks like a monk but trains like a monster (4:30 AM? Really?).
A moment earned by treating rankings like toilet paper and head-to-head numbers like old discarded superstitions. “You have to do it. You have to be a champion. You have to be number one in the world,” This is what Sindhu keeps telling herself when she’s tired.
Attaining the world number one rank in the world might take some time yet, but in the final, Sindhu has a chance to beat the incumbent, Carolina Marin of Spain. Some more context on how tough this match will be: Marin has two World Championship golds, two Super Series Premier titles, and three Super Series titles. Sindhu has one runner up finish at a Super Series Premier event, to go with her two World Championship bronze medals. These are the numbers, make the calculations at your own risk.
Marin is also arguably the most vocal player on the circuit, often using her screams to intimidate more callow opponents. Games featuring Marin are exhibitions of intensity, both with the vocal cords and the racket cords.
Fitting then, that roughly a year ago, Gopichand had specifically issued an injunction to his ward, asking her in no uncertain terms, to be more expressive on court. Accordingly, Sindhu’s fist pumps and exultation have been a feature of her game in Rio, and are signs that she will not be cowed down by the Spaniard’s antics.
Sindhu has now won three consecutive matches against higher ranked opponents. “She has proven to herself more than anybody that she belongs at the big stage in the big matches”, said Gopichand, after her win. By assuring herself of a silver, she has truly stepped out of Saina Nehwal’s shadow. Never again will we make the miscalculation of forgetting Sindhu while counting potential medalists.
In the lead up to Rio, at an event organised by Olympic Gold Quest, who support Sindhu, she was shown a gold medal won by a hockey Olympian. She recounted how it almost brought tears to her eyes. “When will I get this?” she asked herself.
On Friday at the Riocentro pavilion, she has her chance.