As Olympic approaches, PV Sindhu faces many travails in her preparation

Struggling for consistency, the badminton star needs better management if she is to win an Olympic medal

Korea Open, PV Sindhu, B Sai Praneeth, Saina Nehwal, Parupalli Kashyap, BWF World Tour, Super 500 tournament, World Championships
Sindhu has been often beaten by her three top opponents — Tsu, Spanish star Carolina Marin and Thai star Ratchanok Intanon — all of whom have improved, while Sindhu seems to have plateaued out since her World championship win. File Photo: PTI

Badminton star PV Sindhu has announced that she was moving her practice venue from the P Gopichand Academy to the government-owned Gachibowli Indoor Stadium in Hyderabad. She clarified for the umpteenth time that there were no differences with Gopichand and that he was supportive of her decision to practise with her new South Korean coach Park Tae Sang.

The development comes after Sindhu spent much of the COVID-19 lockdown in England seeking a new venue, schedule and plan, but is now back to her home ground.

In an interview to The Times of India, she also offered a technical explanation, stating that the air-conditioned indoor courts would help her get used to the drift of the shuttle caused by the air blower, which happens in most indoor stadiums. Other Olympic team members are also expected to move to this venue. But isn’t this a bit late, with the Olympics just five months away and with a new coach?

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Olympic preparations are not going well for Sindhu who again lost to Taiwanese powerhouse Tai Tsu Ying in the Thai Open in January. Unless she develops a new strategy, she will be unable to get past the No 1. Ying against whom she had a dismal 15 losses to five wins. Going by this head-to-head tally, Sindhu’s gold medal hopes look dim. Ying had two years back paid tributes to Sindhu, saying her smashes were too powerful, but, over the last two years, she strategised enough to be able to beat Sindhu consistently.

Sindhu’s biographer V Krishnaswamy feels she could have done better. “Sindhu is most certainly a world-beater. No player could have reached as many finals of major events as she has, yet she leaves us with a feeling that she should have had many more trophies in her cabinet than she has. Yet, at 25, she has probably not peaked. The pressure after the 2019 World title, the pandemic and uncertainty of the calendar seems to be taking a toll as she sometimes loses to players whose skill levels are below hers. She is always lurking somewhere close to the title at the big events, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she does the same at the Tokyo Olympics,” says Krishnaswamy.

There is no doubt that Sindhu, who is under pressure now as the Olympic clock ticks, should be put under a manager who can strategise and schedule her better. This is a role that a coach is meant to perform though one more senior player in her team would do no harm.

Sindhu has been often beaten by her three top opponents — Tsu, Spanish star Carolina Marin and Thai star Ratchanok Intanon — all of whom have improved, while Sindhu seems to have plateaued out since her World championship win. India’s top shuttlers, most of whom came out of Gopichand’s academy, have not been able to maintain their upward journey. Saina Nehwal is the classic instance of a potential topper unable to strategise well and keep her top rankings. In 2019, for instance, Nehwal lost five times in the first round of big events and lost in the French open in the quarter final. All her losses were to lower-ranked players. There is no reason to believe that Nehwal can return to the top now.

Due to the role he has played in grooming them, Gopichand has a big psychological hold on the top players. But, one by one, they are moving out of his shadow, since he has no time to devote individually to them. The top 10 players need a personal coach to handle them full time, just like the tennis stars, since strategising and drawing a road map are skilled tasks. With the wisdom of hindsight, we can conclude that Gopichand has not managed to do that either courtside or in road-mapping. In fact, he has of late been encouraging his top players to move out and also helped Sindhu get use of the Gachibowli stadium. But he has a habit of interfering at crucial stages, including courtside sitting alongside personal coaches. Gopichand has to cut this umbilical cord.

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Other toppers work with their personal coaches. With every win, their determination grows. This is what Ying and others have done successfully. For instance, Marin who fractured her ankle two years back, has come back firing. She had posted a video of her training with her plastered feet tied to a pole while standing on her free leg and hitting shuttles, showing the level of determination required to stay on top.

At this late stage in Olympic preparation, Sindhu is faced with the prospect of changing tack, improving against her determined opponents — the troika of Tsu-Marin-Intanon. All three are not as tall as her, not physically superior but often get the better of her with tactics and persistence. With her new coach, Sindhu has a lot of work to do.

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