Around this time of the year, PV Sindhu isn't used to being asked about early tournament defeats.
Over the past two years put together, by the end of the Australian Open (the last tournament she's played so far this year, in the first week of June), the Olympic silver medallist and India's highest-ranked badminton player had made four finals and won two titles. This year, two semifinal appearances - at the India Open and Singapore Open - have been her deepest runs. Halfway into the year, Sindhu is yet to make a tournament final.
"I've been working hard, I wasn't lucky enough maybe," Sindhu attempts to sum up. It's half past seven in the evening and she's just wrapped up training for the day followed by a gym session. Her 20-minute ride back home from the Gopichand training facility in Gachibowli to the family villa in the burgeoning residential hub of Kokapet in Hyderabad provides an economical window for a telephonic chat.
She's had a few changes to settle into. In February this year, a four-year sponsorship deal with Chinese premium sports brand Li-Ning meant Sindhu had to switch racquets and shoes - tools which every top-level player reveres and fusses over. In the weeks that followed, she went on to lose the Senior Nationals final to Saina Nehwal and wound up with a pre-quarterfinal exit at the All England Championship in early March. "At the start it's never easy," she says. "It took me some time to adapt and feel comfortable with my grip and movements but now it's all good."
The larger change, however, has been on the coaching front. South Korean coaches Kim Ji Hyun (women) and Park Tae Sang (men) moved into the Gopichand Academy a few months ago to work with the singles players in a crucial year leading up to the Olympics. Since Indonesian Mulyo Handoyo quit in late 2017, there has been no foreign coach working with the top singles names.
With a new coaching setup also comes fresh training patterns and work ethic. "There's a lot of difference between the way we trained before the Korean coaches came in and now," says Sindhu, "Whether it's running or skill training or on-court sessions, we've been making lots of changes and trying a couple of new things. I've been making errors in a heap in tournaments from the back of the court and at the net, for instance. We've been focusing on minimising them. Obviously I won't get it right in a week or a month, but I'll get there."
The World No. 5 Indian's sobering pre-quarterfinal loss to a much-lower ranked Nitchaon Jindapol of Thailand at the Australian Open earlier this month has perhaps added to her learning. "Sometimes it can be natural for players to take someone who's lower-ranked maybe a bit lightly," she says. "I've learnt through all my matches that you have to treat everyone as an equal or you've already messed up the match in your head."
For Sindhu, being a player of reckon has also meant having to cut down on some of her pet shots, like the jump smash. Some of it also has to do with the game turning faster. "Jump smashes have seen me through the Rio Olympics and even in the early stages of my career, but now I use them sparingly," she says. "Part of it is because my opponents don't let me. They know attack is my core strength so they force me into defence with downward shots. That's an area I'm working on. Also, often with the drift when you jump, you can mistime the shuttle."
In the run-up to the Olympics, part of the act is also staying unpredictable, Sindhu adds. "I know the other players have me all figured through videos of my matches, they'd know when and where I'd land a shot, even how. So it's important that I don't play the same kind of game with everyone."
"Sometimes it can be natural to take someone who's lower-ranked maybe a bit lightly. I've learnt through all my matches that you have to treat everyone as an equal or you've already messed up the match in your head." PV Sindhu
It's closing in on three years since Sindhu woke up to stardom with her Olympic medal and for her the love-hate theme between fan and athlete is all too familiar by now. As long as she's winning matches, her social media mentions are filled with sugar-loaded comments. A string of unsuspecting defeats later, questions over why she's on an untimely vacation or why she's walking the ramp in metallic pink sneakers when she'd rather be on court, sneak in. Smack in the middle of a loose shot or a string of errors, commentators on live broadcast too are given to wondering aloud over whether her public appearances may be eating into her training schedule.
Sindhu isn't bitter in the least over the assumed conclusions.
"When you lose, people tend to say things," she laughs. "I know as an athlete I have to face everything. I see all that's written about me...my fashion show appearances, endorsements or vacation pictures but I just leave them there. I don't let them reach my mind. No matter what people say, I still have to play. I still have to try to win."