PV Sindhu had a wry smile on her face as coach Park Joo Bong congratulated her with a fist bump at the end of her match against He Bing Jiao at the World Tour Finals in Guangzhou. Sindhu had played well, overturning an 18-9 deficit in the opening game to beat the Chinese World No. 7, sealing a 21-19, 21-19 victory with an emphatic smash from the front court. It was also a win that had followed four straight defeats to Bingjiao over the course of the last two years.
Yet, with victory came the reminder that Sindhu's tournament - and indeed 2019 international season - had come to an end. Victory over Bing Jiao aside, Sindhu had been unable to defend the title she had won at the same venue last year after defeats over the last couple of days, first to Akane Yamaguchi and then to Chen Yu Fei.
The exit in the group stage of the tournament was yet another instance over the last quarter of the year in which Sindhu has struggled to come anywhere close to the form that saw her win her maiden women's singles title at the World Championships in Basel this August. Heading into the World Tour Finals, she has gone past the second round in just one of the six tournaments she has competed in post the World Championships.
However, while her recent results are particularly poor, it could be argued that if not for the World Championship gold medal, 2019 was one of Sindhu's toughest seasons.
Sindhu's overall win-loss record in 2019 is 30-17. Compare this to her 2018 - where her solitary title was the World Tour Finals (although she won silver medals at the World Championships, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games) - overall record of 48-16. In 2017, that record was 44-14.
This performance slide isn't something that should be particularly concerning, though, according to former national champion Aparna Popat.
"I don't think this is the time for doing postmortems of her performance. What matters is that she is in a happy state. You can compare Sindhu's results with those in her past years and and you could count the number of titles she won on your fingertips," she said.
"For all the China Open, Korea Open or India Open wins, you would always prefer to have a World Championship gold. The World title is more than enough."
Popat feels Sindhu's recent results need to be seen in context of the most significant tournament for 2020 - the Tokyo Olympics.
"The main thing is that she needs to secure her qualification to the tournament as early as possible," she said.
That planning has been complicated by variables not always in the Indian's control. Her coach, Korea's Kim Ji Hyun - whom Sindhu had credited for incorporating several changes to her game and improving a lot of her skills - resigned a month after the World Championships. That has meant a loss of much needed continuity over the last three months.
The BWF's contractual requirements of top players have also meant Sindhu has constantly been on the road. Sindhu played in 18 international tournaments this year - she competed in 20 back in 2016 - which is a punishing routine.
"Sindhu's had a tough schedule after the World Championships," her coach Pullela Gopichand had said. "A lot of players have been finding it difficult because of the schedule and a lot of players have not been doing the best in these tournaments because of the schedule."
At the World Tour Finals, that fatigue was only exacerbated when she was called for a late night dope test ahead of her match against Chen Yu Fei. If Sindhu is focused on the Olympic Games, as Popat reckons she is, it makes sense to be strategic in her planning.
"The only thing that matters to her is that she peaks at the right time," Popat said. "I'm sure she and her team know what they are doing for that. There's probably a bit of adjustment in her training schedule and planning and you won't always get results immediately.
"There's probably a lot of physical training that she has to be doing behind the scenes and it could be the workload that's making it difficult for her in the current competition."
Indeed, Popat expects Sindhu to start hitting her stride when it matters. While the 17 defeats Sindhu has suffered this year don't make for good reading, she has had worse seasons. Back in 2015, a year before she won a silver at the Rio Olympics, Sindhu had a record of 40-19.
"I don't think things like form are a good way to predict how Sindhu is doing. She never actually builds up to any tournament," Popat explained.
"If you see the months before the Olympics, she wasn't really having a great set of results (her win loss record for 2016 before Rio was 23-13). This isn't different from what we have seen of her before. What matters is that Sindhu has the confidence to win the big tournaments. As long as she stays injury-free, I wouldn't be too worried about her."