A few days before the 24-member strong Indian contingent left for Glasgow for the World Badminton Championship, PV Sindhu played a practise match against Jagdish, a junior player at the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad, where she trains. Rather unexpectedly, she lost the match. Something inside her snapped and Sindhu was in tears. This was hardly the kind of result India's big medal hope expected.
Her Indonesian coach Mulyo Handayo stepped in. “Forget about giving your best, just enjoy the game,” he told Sindhu.
The disappointment was perhaps because Sindhu expected to own August once again. All through this month, she has been in flashback mode, remembering the happy memories of Rio where she won the silver at the Olympics last year.
“She told me a few days back, ‘Dad, this was the day I won the first match at Rio’,'' recollects PV Ramana, Sindhu's dad, who played volleyball for India in the 1980s.
On Sunday, as Sindhu took the court in the finals of the World Championship against Nozomi Okuhara, she would have hoped to draw strength from Rio where she beat the Japanese player in the semi-final in straight games. What Sindhu had not factored in was that if her game had improved dramatically in the last 12 months, so had Okuhara's. The Rio match had lasted just 50 minutes, Glasgow went on for an hour longer. Sindhu's natural game is an aggressive one and what Okuhara did in Glasgow was to recognise that and push the Indian to the back of the court to make her hit defensive lobs.
In the end, it was a match that could have gone either way. The podium showcased one winner in Okuhara but with her never-say-die spirit fighting severe exhaustion, Sindhu was a winner all the way.
Energy drinks and chocolate are not the only thing sportspersons draw energy from during a match. They remind themselves of their moments of victory, especially when they are trailing during a match. Like Okuhara did during her semi-final against Saina Nehwal at Glasgow, when the Indian ran away with the first game 21-12. The Japanese said she remembered how well she played against defending champion Carolina Marin in the quarter-final the previous evening and the positive effect on her mind was instantaneous.
Sindhu, those who track her at the academy tell me, has been in Olympic mode for the last six weeks. This has meant focusing extensively on her physical fitness, knowing matches more often than not, stretch beyond 90 minutes, for a match even by the most skilled player is often lost by a tired body and a weak mind. Her managers have ensured there were no brand endorsements in August so that she was not distracted by the non-badminton world.
On the court, Mulyo who charts the training programme, had focused his attention on the Glasgow-bound singles players - Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth, Sameer Verma, Sai Praneeth and Rituparna Das. This meant the support staff would work on each individual's skillsets and fitness.
One of the changes Mulyo introduced since he took charge in February was to have players engage in longer sessions to develop endurance. So, a typical day for seniors like Sindhu starts at 8 30am and goes on non-stop till noon, and then again from 4pm to 6pm. The players now train for ten such sessions in a week. This is the only reason why Sindhu was able to survive on court for 110 minutes on Sunday without developing cramps.
Mulyo also made Sindhu play against Srikanth, Praneeth and Prannoy in a 1-3 format with the three top male shuttlers taking on Sindhu together on the other side of the court. Likewise, each of the male players would do the same 1-3 drill to test their reflexes and ability to play a fast-paced game. Gopichand, whenever he would be in town, would pitch in to be one of the three opponents.
The sight of both Sindhu and Saina on the same podium is one for the archives. The fact that Okuhara played two Indians in two days is a pointer to the Indian ascent in world badminton. Significantly, there has not been a Chinese player in the women's singles finals in three years in the most premier events. The World championship final in 2015 saw a Carolina Marin vs Saina battle, Rio Olympics final in 2016 featured Marin vs Sindhu and this year's World championship final was between Okuhara and Sindhu. India has had a huge role to play in the breaching of the Chinese Wall in women's singles.
Sindhu is a big tournament player and over the past couple of months, had been determined to change the colour of her medal. Sindhu won the bronze in the 2013 and 2014 editions of the World championship.
“I would like her to change it to gold this time,'' Ramana told me on Sunday morning. Both Sindhu's mother P Vijaya, who was among the spectators in Glasgow, and Ramana, who watched the match in Hyderabad, would however know this silver is worth its weight in gold.