Picture this. A 22-year-old girl from Hyderabad has just played the second-longest women’s singles final of a World Badminton Championship. She came just short, losing 21-19, 20-22, 22-20 in a match that lasted 1 hour and 50 minutes, against an opponent who was in the form of her life.
As she walked off the court after the medal ceremony, a journalist asked her to express her thoughts. All she said was: “My gold will come.”
That’s India’s Pusarla Venkata Sindhu for you. Towering at 5’10”, she’s a bundle of energy on court. Her power smashes and unbelievable reach to return almost impossible shots makes her a nightmare for opponents.
In the final in Glasgow, though Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara came out trumps, the match will go down as arguably the best women’s singles final match. They even played a 73-shot rally that was nothing short of a treat.
The question that begs is how do you recover after such a loss? Or does a loss at such a high level, after playing so well, have any real impact?
Sindhu knows the smell of defeat quite well. Her loss to Carolina Marin in the final of the Rio Games was devastating. But she didn’t let it bring her down. Instead, she used it as a catalyst to become a much-improved, determined player. What differentiates good athletes from the great ones is how they respond to failure. Sindhu has aced it, and mind you, she has lots of badminton left in her.
To reach such heights that Sindhu has reached at 22, you need to be a brilliant kid to realize early on in life what you want to do. And that’s not enough. You need an excellent support system to help you reach your goal and pick you up when down. More importantly, you need an excellent mentor/coach.
As far as inspiration is concerned, Sindhu didn’t have to look further than her current coach Pullela Gopichand. A legend in his own right, Gopichand had stunned Cheng Hong to win the men’s singles title at the All-England Badminton Championships back in March 2001. Many had written Gopichand off in 1995 when a knee injury almost ended his playing career. So bad was the injury that his chances of even walking were slim. To beat Hong in perhaps the biggest upset of the time made the feat even sweeter.
While the nation celebrated Gopichand’s achievement and couldn’t get enough of it, a young Sindhu watched in awe and admiration. Sport inspires and that Gopichand victory sowed the seeds in the young girl, who would capture the attention of billions 15 years from then. What further encouraged her was that she hailed from Gopichand’s home state of Andhra Pradesh.
Now Sindhu came from a family of sportspersons. Her parents were accomplished volleyball players and naturally wanted their child to follow in their footsteps. No doubt she would have excelled at that sport too; the badminton world was hers to come.
Sindhu’s father, PV Ramanna, who later received the Arjuna Award, had played in the Indian volleyball team that won bronze at the Seoul Asian Games in 1986. But it was Sindhu’s mother, Vijaya, who convinced him to let their daughter take up badminton seriously.
It wasn’t an easy beginning though. For starters, Sindhu had to travel over 50 kilometres every day to get to the training centre. But the young, determined girl that she was, woke up every day, rode pillion of her father’s scooter and trained hard. It was just the beginning of the sacrifices she would have to make in the gruelling world of professional badminton.
Professional coach, Mehboob Ali, was her first mentor and tutored her on the basics of the game at the badminton courts of the Indian Institute of Signal Engineering and Telecommunications. While that surely saw her headed in the right direction, her real learning began when at the age of nine, her idol Gopichand decided to take her under his wing at his academy at Gachibowli, on the outskirts of Hyderabad.