'I am a bigger star in India than in Spain' - Carolina Marin


Carolina Marin hates being away from home this time of the year. It is when her hometown Huelva, a port city in southern Spain, lights up and her tiny window - away from the tournament grind and punishing schedules - kicks in. For three years now though, Marin has had a trip to India chalked out in her calendar for the off-season festive weeks, courtesy the Premier Badminton League (PBL).

"Sometimes it's hard for me to stay away from my family during this time of the year because this is when I get the most time away from tournaments," Marin tells ESPN.

It helps in the coping then that her 2016 Rio Olympic final against PV Sindhu turned her into a household name in India. She might go unrecognised in the streets back in her home country, but not in India.

"I think I'm a bigger star in India than in Spain. Definitely, without a doubt. And I just love this country."

Marin is only glad that Sindhu has managed to reverse her luck with finals at the World Tour Finals in December last year. It had come after seven consecutive defeats in finals. "I couldn't watch her match but I spoke to her later and told her how happy I was. I think it's great she's managed to win her first big final after all those losses,' Marin says.

Marin, the former world No.1, says a lot has changed in Sindhu's game since their Rio final two-and-a-half years ago.

"It's been quite a long time now since Rio so she is different player now. But I wouldn't want to think too much about her or any of the other players, I'd rather focus on myself."

Back home, Marin isn't in the most envious position. Despite winning an Olympic gold medal and three singles World Championship titles (the only female player to do so), badminton is often overlooked within the Spanish sporting eco-system and lives on the fringes. Her stupendous successes have not been leveraged into a windfall for the sport or an assembly line of players.

She is mindful, even slightly pained, that it is that way.

"We have good players, maybe not good enough for international tournaments, but what we lack is quality coaches. I've got all the major titles and the federation needs to make the most of this opportunity to help the sport grow. Right now I'm the only face of badminton in Spain. I wouldn't say enough is being done. Enough means nothing."

There are practical problems as well. Being the country's strongest player by a distance also means sparring partners are hard to find. Since female players are unlikely to match her pace, she usually trains with nationally ranked male players.

"You look at a country like Japan, they're hosting the next Olympics as well, and see the number of quality players they have - (Nozomi) Okuhara or (Akane) Yamaguchi and I know that's what I don't have. You can improve a lot as a player if you have equally strong players in your country to push you," she says.

But this week, she woke up to a picture of her in a thigh-high slit metallic number splashed across the front page of Spain's most revered, football-devout sports daily, Marca, after being voted the country's best female athlete. Marin is still pinching herself in disbelief.

"It's amazing to be on the front page of such a big newspaper. It gives me hope that the future of badminton will only get better. We should be able to compare it with at least tennis or basketball. Football is in a different league altogether so that's okay."

With her achievements already stacked, motivation can sometimes run dry. Marin, though, has a clear goal - to be the greatest player in the history of the sport. She has already cracked a path to get there.

"When you win everything, it's difficult to stay hungry to win more. But if I want to be the greatest, I need one more Olympic gold and World Championship title."