Bigger the challenge, the better PV Sindhu gets: Deconstructing world champion's form trajectory on badminton's greatest stages
Sindhu is known to peak when the time is right; when major tournaments knock at her door. Looking at her trajectory on the women's circuit since 2016, the 24-year-old's knack of peaking after early exits has earned her a handful of medals.
Looking at her trajectory on the women's circuit since 2016, Sindhu's knack of peaking after early exits has earned her a handful of medals.
In 2016, an off-colour Sindhu only peaked after the Australia Open in June. That led to an Olympic silver medal in August and gold at the China Open.
After a topsy-turvy start to the 2018 season , Sindhu peaked in August once and it continued in December, where she won the season-ending BWF World Tour Finals.
Indian badminton was starring at a slew of questions before the players headed to Basel a fortnight ago. In the run-up to the World Championships, the country's top women's shuttler and two-time silver medallist PV Sindhu had succumbed twice in a row to World No 1 Akane Yamaguchi at two different World Tour events. Defeats against lower-ranked players like Cai Yan Yan and Nitchaon Jindapol kept her out of the 'favourites' picture.
But it didn't matter what we had to predict about Sindhu's run-up before a major event.
Sindhu was saving her best for the final act. As we braced ourselves for another nail-biter, Sindhu proved us wrong and blazed past Nozomi Okuhara with venom in the most lop-sided match.
But the 24-year-old is known to peak when the time is right; when major tournaments knock at her door. Looking at her trajectory on the women's circuit since 2016, Sindhu's knack of peaking after early exits has earned her a handful of medals.
In 2016, an off-colour Sindhu only peaked after the Australia Open in June. That led to an Olympic silver medal in August and gold at the China Open among other two finals appearances. She won the Australian Open next year and went on a winning spree from late June, winning the Korea Open and losing the World Championships and BWF World Tour Finals title clashes.
After a topsy-turvy start to the 2018 season — where she reached five finals — the Hyderabad shuttler peaked in August once and it continued in December, where she won the season-ending BWF World Tour Finals. It was an average start to the 2019 season, where juggled between quarter-finals and semi-finals appearances, but finally peaked in July and August.
A cursory glance at her achievements tells us about a player who first entered the semi-finals of the World Championships aged just 18. She reached the last-four as a 19-year-old too. At 21, she made the final at the Olympics. At 22, she was in the final of the World Championships. Only last year, she made it back-to-back finals in a row at the grandest stage of all. Now, at 24, she is a world champion.
Where the prizes are the biggest, Sindhu is at the zenith of her powers.
"Look at her career, she has won some big titles. She's won the Olympic silver, World Tour gold, World Championships gold. Which other big tournaments can you think of? She still hasn't peaked, but has given us a sneak peek into what she's about. She is looking comfortable," nine-time national champion Aparna Popat told Firstpost.
It was only a matter of time before she brought home gold. It's an ode to her consistency at the very top echelons of the game. And just when national coach Pullela Gopichand expressed his concerns about the need for a system in place, more quality coaches, more world-class training centres, more attention to detail, Sindhu's gold presents the perfect chance to bring that change.
"There's no doubt that it is the biggest achievement she's got so far. Looking at the larger spectrum, it's a massive win for Indian badminton as well. A win is a win. You can get a silver or bronze, but becoming a world champion feels different. One can't put it in words, it's the biggest title you could have. The win was great but it was also the way it happened," said Popat, who had predicted a one-sided final.
The way it happened on the last two days in Basel was total carnage. Sindhu went short and relied on her explosive hitting. Against Tai Tzu Ying in the quarter-finals, she proved that she can win tactical battles too.
So, where does she generate the explosiveness from?
"Any game that you play has to flow. When I say flow, it means that you need to physically move and dictate the shuttle. But you should also have the sense of what is going on and what you're doing and how you're executing," explained Popat. That's how she tamed former World No 1 Tai in three games.
"To get your flow is really important. Sindhu is following up on the shots smoothly, anticipating aggressively and her strokes have more power. Her flow is in sync right now. Once that happens, it's quite a liberating feeling," she further added. Sindhu wasn't held back by any self-doubt against Chen and Okuhara.
With that gold, Sindhu also becomes the joint highest women's singles medal winner at the World Championships with former Olympic champion Zhang Ning of China who has an identical 1 gold, 2 silver and 2 bronze between 2001 and 2007 to her name. That just tells you about the legacy she has carved out at just 24.
"It's unreal. Just to equal somebody like a Zhang Ning's record, it's unreal. Who would have thought that it would happen so quickly and then by an Indian? She has lost big finals before, but the consistency in the bigger events have been mind-blowing," exclaimed the 41-year-old former player.
The Indian only dropped a game throughout the tournament, that too against the formidable Tai. It was more than just explosive badminton in Basel. "She has got her act together and became more comfortable on the court. It doesn't matter what we think, because when you're on the court, you want to be comfortable. I might say that an attacking game could work, but what's the point if you are not going to be comfortable?"
The Olympic cycle is in full swing. With the 'final hoodoo' long gone, Sindhu would be licking her lips at the prospect of winning gold in Tokyo next year. "Sindhu will have time to prepare for the Tokyo Olympics. She is going to have the flexibility to do things that she needs to do without any scrutiny. She has got the choices now.
"It would be premature to say that this performance equals an Olympic medal, but having said that, this is looking good. We will have to protect our form and see what happens next."
What happens next carries a lot of weight in the run-up to the Olympic Games next year. But even if we see a series of stuttering shows at other events, it would be silly to rule out her peak show knowing that the biggest events bring out the best in Sindhu.
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