Big game for the big stage - why Sindhu's the best of the decade

PV Sindhu celebrates after beating Nozomi Okuhara in the final. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Even as the decade draws to a close, PV Sindhu has no shortage of commitments she's expected to fulfill. Over the course of just the last few days, there have been fresh brand endorsements she's signed and meetings she's attended with the Chief Ministers of both Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, collecting a state pride award from the latter.

It's true she's coming off a slight blip on the performance front, exiting in the opening round of the World Tour Finals, where she was the defending champion, but that's hardly a result that's going to put a cloud on what's been a remarkable decade for her.

It's not a particularly difficult argument to make that she's easily the best Indian sportsperson of the last ten years. Across sport.

She has, after all, ticked nearly every box there is in badminton. There have been the requisite titles racked up on the BWF professional circuit - including the season-ending World Tour Finals from last year. More important - for a country starved for success at the biggest stages - has been Sindhu's comfort on that platform. There was the Olympic silver from Rio, which itself was sandwiched between bronze medals at the 2013 and 2014 World Championships and silver medals from the 2017 and 2018 editions of the Worlds. And just in case there were doubts about whether she had the game to go all the way, she did just that in August this year - becoming only the first Indian badminton player ever to do so.

These are results that Sindhu perhaps comes to expect of herself as routine now but ones she admits she could have hardly fathomed all those years back - in 2010, and even earlier in 2009 - when she actually made her debut on the international circuit. "I can't believe it's been so long. The decade has gone by very fast," she admits.

She was a tall, lanky girl of 14 then, who was coming to grips with her obvious physical gifts. Her motivations of playing tournaments in Maldives and Iran were far simpler then. "I think I was just excited about going abroad and maybe flying on a airplane," she recalls. Her rivalry with the Spaniard Carolina Marin, which would one day be fought in front of a packed Rio Stadium for the Olympic gold, was once played out in sleepy Male, with just a smattering watching from the bleachers in 2011. "I met Carolina for the first time there on the senior circuit. Honestly, if you had asked either of us, I don't think we would have guessed we were going to be where we were at the end of the decade," she says.

For what it's worth, Sindhu beat Marin in that early encounter, but the fact was her ambitions were pretty modest then. "I used to be playing in challenger-level competitions and in the qualifying rounds of the Superseries (tournaments). And I used to wonder when my chance would come. Just get into the main draw and go past the first round. I'd dream of simply making the quarters and semis of the big tournaments. Even winning them wasn't very realistic," she says.

Even if it was at the lower-rated tournaments and in the initial rounds of the bigger events, Sindhu was making an impression. "You knew from a very early stage that this was someone you needed to keep an eye on," says former national champion Aparna Popat. It wasn't just her physical attributes -- she was already close to six feet and could produce steep smashes from that height -- that stood out. "She had a physical dominance but that was not it. At the junior level, having the physical advantage she had makes a huge difference, because it is so uncommon. But that's not a guarantee of future success," says Popat. There were other factors that stood out. "She not only had good genes in terms of her physique but she also she had a very good coach in Gopi (Pullela Gopichand), who you knew was devoting a lot of attention to her. But more than her game or style of play, it was that she could jump levels really quickly," she adds.

That showed in Sindhu's career development. Unlike Saina Nehwal - in whose shadow Sindhu spent the early years of her career-- Sindhu didn't have a particularly distinguished junior record. Nehwal had won a silver medal at the 2006 World Juniors and a gold medal at the 2008 event. Sindhu's best performance was a quarterfinal finish in 2010.

At the senior level, Sindhu's progress was prodigious. At the start of 2011, she was ranked outside the top 150 (151). By mid-2012, she was ranked 25th in the world. She barely missed making it to the London Olympics. "It's one thing to do well as a junior, where your achievements have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Sindhu didn't give you that time to see what improvement was taking place. She moved very quickly; from being this potentially good player to being the front-runner. There were no small steps for Sindhu. She wasn't making the kind of steady progress you saw Saina make, where you do well one year, then improve on that the next year. Sindhu was making three big steps at once. She was just skipping all these steps you thought players had to make," says Popat.

While Sindhu didn't make it to the Olympics, she pulled off one of what Popat describes as the leapfrogging jumps of her career soon after, when she beat the Olympic Champion Li Xuerui in the China Masters. "Beating Xuerui was the turning point of my career. That's when I realised I should be taking my badminton more seriously. That's when I started to believe I could actually play at the highest level," says Sindhu.

She did justice to that self-belief when, just the year after the upset, she won her first medal - a bronze - at the World Championships. If the upset of Xuerui had raised eyebrows overseas, the bronze medal made the international audience take further attention. "Honestly, after the Olympics, we expected that it was going to be Saina Nehwal who was going to be the player to watch out for. But with Sindhu's win, it was obvious that it's not going to be a one-horse town," recalls Steen Schleicher, a commentator with the BWF and former coach of the Denmark women's team back in 2013.

Even so, Schleicher says that Sindhu's medal wasn't celebrated as it might have. "Back then, Sindhu's medal was interesting but it was Ratchanok's (Intanon) gold medal that was the big story. That was the first time that a non-Chinese player won the women's singles title since 1999," he recalls.

Back then, Schleicher admits, it was expected that Thailand's Intanon would be the long-term prospect. Admittedly, the Thai's elegant, wristy play from the net was more eye-pleasing compared to Sindhu's more workmanlike approach. The big booming smash that's the hallmark of Sindhu's game is deceptive, says Schleicher. "Because of the big smash and her physical superiority, she's mistaken as an attacking player. She doesn't have a great attack from the net. Technically, she's a bit lacking compared to someone like Ratchanok. Her game is built around retrieving. She's probably the best retriever in the women's game. Her style is about making the correct choices and not making stupid mistakes. She forces the opponent to make a mistake and then she has a great finishing stroke to end the point. The opponent has to win their points because they wont get anything for free," he says.

There is a simplicity to Sindhu's style that has worked for her. But it comes with its own share of challenges. While Sindhu's height and reach enables her immense retrieving ability and powerful point-ending kill shot, it's also something that, theoretically, isn't built for longevity. "There's a reason that there aren't many tall players in the women's game. It's difficult to train a tall person in an agility sport. Their center of gravity is higher. They can't turn or bend as quickly as a shorter player. One wrong move will lead to injury," says Popat.

While Sindhu has picked up the odd injury, the most serious being one to her foot in the months leading up to the 2016 Olympics, her ability to stay injury-free has been critical to her prolonged success at the elite level. "It's not as if I've avoided injury. But I've always worked hard on preparing my body for it. I've learned what to avoid and what to improve," she says.

While she's had success since, the recovery from injury - and then peaking in time for the 2016 Olympics - is undoubtedly one of the career-defining moments for Sindhu. It was then that she truly stepped out of Saina's shadow. "That's when she became the flagship of Indian badminton," says Schleicher.

Sindhu admits as much. "After I won the Macau Open (back in 2014), people were supportive but the real pressure started after I won the silver in the Olympics. That's when people started expecting me to win every tournament I took part in," she says.

It could have been overwhelming. Yet to her credit, Sindhu doesn't seem to have let it affect her too much. "It's helped that her personality has been to take things as they come. She has been able to diffuse the pressure of expectations. There have been very distinct downs since the Olympics. But she's managed to stay level-headed. She's managed to stay happy and not see the sport as a burden," says Popat.

It's a philosophy Sindhu learned early in her career, right after the first Worlds medal in 2013. "When I started playing, I used to get very upset if I lost a match. I'd take it very poorly. It was the opposite when I won. I was pretty excited after the bronze medal at the World Championships. But right then, coach Gopichand told me not to get carried away. He's always told me to stay grounded and focus on the next tournament," she recalls.

Sindhu admits there are times when it's been hard, like in the latter half of this season - where she made it past the second round in just one of the last six tournaments she took part in. "Some of the lows have been really low. But there's no point taking pressure on myself if I do badly in one tournament. No one wants to lose early but if you focus too much on that defeat, you will let it affect you in your next tournament's matches," she says.

That's been the mindset that's carried her through some of the trickier spells of her career, especially after she suffered losses in the final of the 2017 and 2018 World Championships. "Back then, there was a little bit of spice to the whole thing. Because apart from the World Championships, she had lost in the final of the Asian Games, the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics of course. The story that was established was that she's the eternal second-best. So there was this question of whether there was some sort of mental block that she had," says Schleicher. "Everyone gets a little nervous before the big points. But what's remarkable is that's never been the case with Sindhu. Not one of the losses she's had in any of the big tournaments was because of nervousness or indecision. It had always been because her opponent was just a little better on that day."

Which is why he wasn't all that surprised when Sindhu finally ended her drought with the win in Basel this year. It was a win that came against the grain of her overall performance this season - her record this year is 30-17, her worst in the last four years. The Worlds campaign though, was possibly the most complete performance Sindhu had put together over the decade. "At the start of her career, she was very reliant on her smash. At the Olympics in particular, that was the most decisive stroke she had," says Popat. "At the Worlds, she wasn't using it that much, you almost saw a new version of hers. She was playing at a much faster pace. Her stroke selection was exceptional, as was the way she was thinking about the game," she says.

For Sindhu, that constant evolution has been key to her prolonged success. "It's not just that I have changed my style of play. The world of badminton has changed as well. The game is more open now. Back when I started, you almost accepted that it was going to be one of the Chinese players who would win. The game is also much faster now. Players aren't just hitting tosses and drop shots. There's more retrieving that is going on. You have to be far more physically fit than before. And because I've been playing for so long, my opponents are always studying me. So you have to be constantly innovating," she says.

There's no doubt that as Sindhu enters her third decade in international badminton, she will be revamping herself once again, with fresh new challengers rising through the ranks. "I've seen Sindhu keep growing through the decade and becoming more efficient as a player," says Popat. "She's changed from someone who had a lot of physical gifts into someone who's got good technical skills, good movement, extremely good defence, who has a very strong understanding of badminton.

"I'm sure that if she's gunning for the Olympics, we are going to see another version of Sindhu at Tokyo."