Once you have been crowned world champion, the expectations and aspirations of all your loyal supporters will rocket sky-high, and few excuses for slipping from that lofty pedestal will be entertained. And so it has been with PV Sindhu, whose capture of the gold medal at the 2019 World Championships in Basel a couple of months back, has endowed her with a halo that has begun to pinch.
In two tournaments since that epochal triumph in Switzerland, the 24-year-old Indian has failed dismally to replicate the storming form that allowed her to imperiously sweep aside the likes of long-standing World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, China’s current World No 2, Chen Yufei, and Japan’s 2017 world champion, Nozomi Okuhara, in successive rounds en route to the crown.
One would like to gloss over Sindhu’s losses to the talented Thai youngster, Pornpawee Chochuwong, at the China Open, and to Chinese-American Beiwen Zhang at the Korea Open, as mere aberrations in her awesomely consistent record that has yielded one gold, two silver and two bronze medals in the last six World Championships since 2013, as well as a silver at the Rio Olympics in 2016, a year in which the World Championships are not held.
There can be no doubt that Sindhu keenly felt the absence of her effervescent and voluble South Korean coach, Kim Ji Hyun, after that worthy had to return to her adopted country, New Zealand, to tend to her ailing husband; and was forced to resign from her position in Hyderabad. But there were definitely other distractions that would have eaten heavily into her training and practice time — collecting an unending stream of awards from every corner of the country, and signing commercial contracts.
It is not for nothing that Sindhu was anointed by Forbes as among the world’s top-15 richest female athletes, in a list dominated by tennis stars. The Hyderabadi, with total earnings of $5.5 million in the period 1 June, 2018 to 1 June, 2019 (broken up into prize money of $500,000 and endorsements in excess of $5 million) was tied joint-13th with Madison Keys, who significantly had much higher prize money of $2.5 million, but lower endorsements of $3 million.
“Sindhu remains India’s most marketable female athlete,” the magazine declared. “The badminton star has endorsements with Bridgestone, JBL, Gatorade, Panasonic, and more.”
Following the capture of the World Championship title in Basel, Sindhu’s market value has literally gone through the roof. In a new list that is currently under preparation for the year ended 30 September, 2019, Sindhu is expected to overtake at least six players, including the seventh-ranked athlete, Maria Sharapova, whose earnings exceeded $7 million for the June 2018-to-June 2019 period.
Then there is the question of motivation. For all her quality and achievements, Sindhu cannot be considered one of the all-time greats. She does not possess the mental fortitude yet of three-time world (2014, 2015 and 2018) and reigning Olympic champion, Carolina Marin of Spain. Nor does she possess the kind of artistry and repertoire of strokes that took Tai Tzu Ying to the pinnacle of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, and kept her there for an amazing 129 weeks, before the Taiwanese was overtaken by Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi.
The Denmark Open World Tour Super 750 tournament, that kicks off on Tuesday with a prize money purse of $775,000, gives Sindhu a chance to prove that she has what it takes to scale the heights even in the relatively less important tournaments on the crowded World Tour, without having Kim Ji Hyun in her corner. The speculation that another Korean, Park Tae Sang, would replace Kim was proven to have been premature after national coach Pullela Gopichand categorically refuted the news reports.
Thanks to the loss of points at the China and Korea Opens, Sindhu has slid to the sixth position in the BWF rankings. The draw at the Odense Sports Park, a home stadium for the 2017 world champion, Viktor Axelsen, has placed Sindhu in the top quarter, directly on a quarter-final collision course with Japanese top seed, Yamaguchi, with a possible semi-final confrontation with another Japanese, Okuhara, looming a round later.
Before that, the Indian ace has two tricky obstacles to hurdle, in the form of former world junior champion, Gregoria Mariska Tunjung of Indonesia, in her lung-opener in the competition; and the exciting Korean teenager, An Se Young, in the second round. Sindhu boasts a clean 5-0 career record against Tunjung, but has never encountered Se Young before, and could find the 17-year-old Korean a handful.
Victories in these two rounds would have Sindhu facing off against Yamaguchi, whom she leads 10-6 in career head-to-heads, but to whom she has lost in straight games on the last two occasions that the rivals have clashed earlier this year — at the Indonesia and Japan Opens.
Sindhu’s compatriot and erstwhile shuttle queen, Saina Nehwal, has had a disappointing season thus far, but could do better than her eighth seeding would indicate, if she were to put it across the No 2 seed from China, Chen Yufei, in the quarter-finals.
Saina’s opening match, though, promises to test the Indian’s mettle, for she will be facing the Japanese left-hander, Sayaka Takahashi, to whom she lost at the Thailand Open, on the eve of the Basel World Championships. That was the only occasion on which the 29-year-old Hissar-born veteran failed to knock over Takahashi in five meetings; and the 21-16, 11-21, 14-21 defeat took place in a storm of recrimination over poor quality umpiring.
As for the men, the Denmark Open is the first tournament in the past three years in which India’s leading male player, Kidambi Srikanth, is unseeded. Having dropped out of the top eight in the world, Srikanth has been dealt a cruel blow by the luck of the draw, and handed a first-round meeting with the No 4 seed, Anders Antonsen of Denmark, runner-up to Kento Momota in the Basel World Championships this August.
Sai Praneeth has been put on his mettle in much the same way, as he crosses swords with five-time former world champion and two-time Olympic gold medallist, Lin Dan of China, in his opening encounter. Their winner has been given the dubious pleasure of taking on Japan’s two-time reigning world champion Momota, in the second round.
Sameer Verma has a date first up with bustling Japanese Kanta Tsuneyama, with their winner taking on the victor of the first-round clash between the No 5 seed and two-time former world champion, Chen Long of China and Lee Zii Jia, the exciting Malaysian disciple of the retired great, Lee Chong Wei.
Although the fourth among the “usual suspects”, HS Prannoy, has given the event a miss, two other Indians feature in the main draw. Sourabh Verma, promoted from the reserves after the late withdrawal of the injured Shi Yuqi, takes on Mark Caljouw of The Netherlands, while Parupalli Kashyap meets Thai Sittikorn Thammasin, whom Mumbaikars had seen scoring over Lakshya Sen in the Tata Open, two years ago.
Should the two Indians win, they will spar between themselves for the right to proceed to a possible quarter-final meeting with eighth-seeded Indonesian, Anthony Sinisuka Ginting. All these players feature in the top half of the draw, where the left-handed world champion Momota bars everyone’s path in the classic manner of Horatio holding the bridge, or Cerberus guarding the gateway to Hades!
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Updated Date: Oct 15, 2019 10:29:52 IST