In the hours after her semifinal, when PV Sindhu broke down and sobbed over her missed chance at fighting for a gold, coach Park Tae Sang cut through the gloom with his simple words: There's a huge difference between a bronze medal and fourth place.
It flicked a switch in Sindhu. She barely had a day's time to pick herself up, dust off the defeat and hurl everything she had to bring back a medal. It's an endearing coach-player dynamic, not circumscribed by muted agreement and respectful nods. Smiling at their Zoom screen from Tokyo in their tricolor jerseys a day after the bronze medal win, one filled the other in on his rising popularity stocks back in the country.
"You are a star in India now," Sindhu grinned, turning to look at Park. "Who, me?" he gasped and covered his mouth in dramatic effect, at the news.
"It's a first for me as coach that my player has got an Olympic medal," he said, "When I started coaching Sindhu, she was already a big star. I felt a little bit of pressure. I told myself then, 'I can try to make Sindhu a gold medalist'. We failed. But I think a bronze is a very, very big..." he pauses to search for the right word. "Medal," Sindhu offered with a helpful smile.
The Korean uses his index finger for an air scroll gesture to convey he's been flooded with messages before pulling off a quick Namaste in gratitude for the support. They've been working together for a year and a half now, and Sindhu counts on Park to plug the gaps in her game much like he falls back on her for assistance in articulating his thoughts.
"We always dreamt of getting a medal," said Sindhu at the interaction facilitated by the Badminton Association of India on Monday, "It was a bit hard after the semifinals. I was sad, the emotions were hard to control but his (Park) words really pushed me. I woke up (on Sunday morning) with the thought I have another chance, it's not over yet. A medal is a medal so I just wanted to give my best."
A query on a possible gold in 2024, draws a quick fist pump from the 42-year-old Park and Sindhu graciously bats it aside with wanting to 'live in the moment'. She addresses Park with a polite 'mister' prefix. The respect is mutual and the banter free-flowing.
"He has learnt the term aaram se (be calm)," says Sindhu. "He uses it during key points of rallies to remind me it's not over and I have to be calm. We've actually known each other for a long time, from when he was working with the Korean team. We have an understanding and even if it's just through eye contact I know what he wants me to play."
Park interrupts to joke that at times forget eye contact, even the advice he hollers during matches go unheeded. "Sometimes I was shouting, 'Sindhu play this or don't do this' but she couldn't hear me."
Sindhu laughs at the charge. She has worked with three coaches in three years now. "It's been Mulyo (Handoyo), Kim (Ji Hyun) and Park," she says, going over the names, "There have been lots of ups and downs. A lot has changed in my game, I've learnt a lot and gained experience. (Mister) Park has met his family for just 13 days since last year. He's been with me in India, working very hard and he now badly wants to visit home."
Park is nodding wildly at this point. "My three-year-old daughter has been telling me 'Daddy please come back.' I promised them I will come to Korea. The Covid cases are rising a bit. Also travelers from India may be asked to quarantine," he says with a touch of worry.
Through the whole of last year, Park stayed put in Hyderabad, training Sindhu through the week at the Gachibowli stadium and allowing himself an occasional round of golf on Sundays.
"Of course I want to continue with him, we have good communication," Sindhu said in endorsement of their partnership. She then clutched at Park's shoulder. They exchange smiles, and she throws the kind of query we usually reserve for those who matter the most to us. "You will be back, won't you?"