The glut of talented women's singles players in badminton makes for a crowded pool of medal worthies at the Tokyo Olympics, now six months away. If PV Sindhu has to make a firm push atop that group peopled by the Tai Tzu-Yings, Marins and Okuharas, she might want to want to add Thursday's 38-minute horror quarterfinal against world No 5 Ratchanok Intanon at the Toyota Thailand Open in the viewing list of her own matches she snacks on these days.
In only her fourth competitive match since the All England Open in March year, Sindhu struggled with the length of her shots, falling to unforced errors by the bunch and gifting points to an opponent she's had little trouble beating in the recent past. The Indian had gone into this match having won the last three of their previous encounters, all without losing a game.
It's still early days. Form can be creaky after 10 quiet months. The 25-year-old is being judged closely for her decision to travel to the UK in October last year and train with the England national team and sticking it out there for three months. It was discussed through the larger part of the second game by match commentators Gillian Clark and Morten Frost. Sindhu had faded away from the contest by then - spraying the shuttle wide, playing downward shots which Intanon, a ballerina in full flight, blocked with beautiful guise. She would lose that game in an embarrassing 17 minutes.
She herself, however, didn't sound particularly troubled after the match. "After this COVID situation every player is almost at the same level. I think I can improve much more... After this performance I have to work harder," Sindhu would tell BWF after her 21-13, 21-9 defeat, before harking back to a phase two years ago to draw a quick parallel with her current predicament, "In mid-2019, my shoulder was injured. It was an overuse injury. That break was difficult. It was tough because I was playing well before that. That year I played a lot of quarterfinals. I lost my confidence and it was tough for me. It took almost one and a half months to get back on court. It's difficult to find rhythm at this level. I was talking to a sports psychologist on how to stay confident and reading books and watching movies... watching my videos and motivational movies."
Five months apart in age, both Sindhu and Ratchanok's major breakthrough came with some big wins against the Chinese at the 2013 World Championships. While Sindhu beat defending champion Wang Yihan and former champion Wang Shixian, Ratchanok overcame Olympic gold medalist Li Xuerui in the final to become badminton's youngest world champion at 18. Sindhu's turn would come six years later.
The unusual length of the break from the competitive space does not wear off soon or without sufficient matches. Sindhu lost to Danish upstart Mia Blechfeldt in the first round last week in straight games. For a reigning world champion these early losses in a field already missing the Chinese and Japanese mustn't sit easy. She will get another crack at finding her rhythm in next week's gathering of top-eight players at the World Tour Finals. Neither of these three events in the Asian tour, though, will count towards the August Games.
Ahead of the Rio Olympics, Sindhu was nowhere in the lists of medal contenders. She flew under the radar and swooped a silver. This time, she will headline the national contingent, the complexion of expectations far deeper and weightier. And right now, it's still early days... for hasty judgements and little faith.