Another Olympic medal for P. V. Sindhu. Come as it did, the hue of the metal did not matter much. For a country desperate to see an addition to its medals’ tally, the world champion’s bronze medal victory over a lower-ranked Chinese rival, He Bingjiao, qualified for a huge celebration on that Sunday evening. And why not? Unlike Rio, Sindhu carried the burden of expectations of a nation and made sure she did not return empty-handed.
Sindhu’s former coach P. Gopichand called to congratulate her, but arch-rival Saina Nehwal did not. “In any case, we don’t talk much,” was a smiling Sindhu’s response during a press conference a day after the competition.
Going by her reputation of doing well in big-ticket events, Sindhu’s medal appeared part of a natural progression. She won all her five matches in straight games and lost in the same way in the semifinals to pre-match favourite Tai Tzu-Ying. In this match involving the world champion and the world No. 1, the latter appeared to be getting better and better as the match progressed.
Unlike Tai, who has won more Badminton World Federation (BWF)World Tour events than any other since its inception in 2018, Sindhu’s lack of consistency was a worry ahead of the Games. But all credit to her for playing good enough to add to her collection of medals.
But how did it all happen?
In the five years since losing the Olympic final to Carolina Marin, Sindhu has moved into a certain comfort zone with overseas coaches. For the better part of 2017, Indonesian Mulyo Handoyo was around mainly to work with the men’s team. “We were all together during training, and Mulyo’s presence helped hugely,” recalls Sindhu about his contribution in her winning the 2017 Korea Open, her last BWF Superseries title.
After Handoyo left in December 2017, Sindhu ended her barren run in 2018 by winning the year-ending BWF World Tour Finals, which remains her only title on the tour so far.
Early in 2019, Korean coach Kim Ji-hyun came into the picture and Sindhu credited her after winning the 2019 world title. When she left in September after expressing her displeasure over the sequence of events, her countryman Park Tae-sang, who was already around and knew Sindhu well, was entrusted with the responsibility of preparing her for Tokyo.
When competitions resumed in January 2021, Sindhu had a series of disappointing performances, barring at the Swiss Open and the All England. Sindhu and Park left the Gopichand Academy to train at the nearby Gachibowli Stadium in Hyderabad.
In Tokyo, it was Park who guided Sindhu. This animated coach, a 2004 Athens Olympics quarterfinalist, had worked well on Sindhu’s defensive skills, which were evident in her play.
As expected, Sindhu breezed past Israel’s Ksenia Polikarpova and Hong Kong’s Cheung Ngan Yi in the league. In the elimination round, Sindhu faced a tricky customer in Denmark’s Mia Blichfeldt, who she beat in Thailand earlier this year. Showing tremendous resolve, Sindhu won without being threatened.
Up next was former world No. 1 Akane Yamaguchi. Against the home favourite, Sindhu won the first game comfortably. In the second, Yamaguchi bounced back to hold two game points at 20-18, but Sindhu seized the last four points to close the contest.
Up against Tai Tzu-Ying, Sindhu knew it was a tough task. Having lost 13 out of 18 in head-to-head encounters, including the last three as world champion, Sindhu had to raise the bar significantly to figure out her hugely talented rival’s disguised strokes.
Sindhu, despite leading for the better part of the first game, could not prevent Tai from breaking away from 18-all. In the second, it was Tai in full flow as Sindhu struggled to stay in step with her famed rival.
Ironically, despite being the most dominant player in the last five years, Tai is still in search of her maiden world or Olympic title after losing the Tokyo final to Chinese top seed Chen Yufie.
For Sindhu, the semifinal loss was a heart-breaking one. “I was in tears. Everyone around me was sad. But my coach Park Tae-sang reminded me that I had another match to play for a medal. When he pointed out the difference between being third and fourth, I woke up. I started focusing on the bronze medal match. Of course, I am very happy to add another Olympic medal.”
How the men fared
In the men’s doubles, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty gave a heartwarming performance. In the four-team Group A, the Indian duo started their campaign by stunning the world No. 3 pair and eventual gold medallists Lee Yang and Wang Chi-lin before beating Britain’s Ben Lane and Sean Vendy. Their only loss was against the world No. 1 team from Indonesia, Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo. Following a three-way tie for the two quarterfinal spots, the Indians missed out.
Truly disappointing was the performance of world championship bronze medallist B. Sai Praneeth. In a three-man preliminary league, favourite Praneeth surrendered tamely to Israel’s Misha Zilberman and the Netherlands’ Mark Caljouw in straight sets.
Overall, despite Sindhu slipping from the Rio silver to bronze this time and Satwik and Chirag failing to go past the league stage, their performances should bring them an immense sense of pride.