Shuttler PV Sindhu has one ultimate aim: to finish the job she left incomplete at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Her journey though is not going to be easy…
Two words: “I Retire”. On November 2, a social media post bearing this message on its cover went online and did what it was expected to: make people sit up and take notice.
Typically, this is the kind of clickbait marketers use. However, it came from the Twitter and Instagram feeds of ace shuttler PV Sindhu, fuelling conjecture. Many genuinely, even if momentarily, believed that the 2016 Olympics silver medallist was calling time on her career.
“I know I gave a bit of heart attack to everyone,” Sindhu laughs. The sixth-ranked shuttler is in London preparing to mark her return to the court at the Asian leg of the BWF World Tour to be held in Thailand in January 2021.
Of course, the 25-year-old knew what she was doing when she uploaded the message. She says she was only retiring “from the negativity, the constant fear, uncertainty” and “a complete lack of control over the unknown” — all of which she attributed to the pandemic outbreak in the post. What many did not know was that it was also a subtle marketing campaign, as Sindhu represents Hindustan Unilever’s Nature Protect brand.
“It is important for all of us to take care of ourselves. Everybody is travelling and stepping out. It is more important now to stay safe and be healthy,” says Sindhu, connecting over Zoom from England, where she is presently stationed.
Now training at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute (GSSI), she says she had to forego training for up to five months during lockdown, and when she resumed, it was hard not to be paranoid about being surrounded by sweating athletes. “When I’m training, or when I sit on benches, place the racquet on the floor and pick it back up, I need [sanitising] wipes. I’m also the type of person who is very particular about hygiene and safety,” she says.
Sindhu left midway from the camp at the SAI Gopichand National Badminton Academy in Telangana last month to head to London, a move that generated a buzz since this was the first full-fledged preparatory camp conducted for elite athletes post lockdown. Sindhu reaffirms that her stay at GSSI, which will be for a few more weeks, will help her analyse her body.
“While playing tournaments, I don’t get much time to undertake these tests. Now is a good opportunity to train and know my body condition, what is going on and what I need to do to improve. GSSI is taking care of my nutrition, doing sweat analysis and watching the calories that I intake. As you know, understanding nutrition is an important thing for athletes,” Sindhu adds.
Since Sindhu’s arrival on the scene, and especially after her gold medal clash with Spaniard Carolina Marín at the Rio Olympics, which the latter won, badminton’s popularity in the country has soared significantly, almost in parallel with the shuttler’s fortunes. Sindhu believes that the country is on the right track in terms of promoting the sport, and that the Government of India through initiatives such as Khelo India, has been setting up the platform for young sportspersons to utilise and benefit from.
“Even corporate sponsorships have improved. I, myself, am sponsored by the Olympic Gold Quest, and they have done so since I was 14. It matters if a sportsperson wants to go abroad and train or play tournaments. There are also others like the GoSports Foundation. I know there still are people who may get fewer opportunities, but once somebody gets one, what they do with it is up to them. He/she has to work really hard to become an elite athlete,” she remarks.
For Sindhu, however, the aim remains the same as it was in 2016 — the Olympic gold medal. She considers the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as a blessing in disguise, as it has given her time to work on, improve and perfect her technique. “I got a lot of time to innovate on my shots. You are going to see a PV Sindhu who is unique and different competitively at the 2021 Olympics,” she says, brimming with confidence.
The fight to get there is not going to be easy. Many elite athletes stand in her way; she identifies Carolina Marín and Taiwanese player Tai Tzu-ying as her primary challengers. “The top 10 players are all of the same standard from a competitive view point. So what really matters is how we manage to perform on that particular day. Of course, it is the Olympics and everyone will be keen on giving their 100% and playing their best in every game. The pressure will be different,” she says.
That last remark is a reminder of how much she has grown as a sportsperson, and also a marker of the amount of hope this country will pin on her when she steps onto the courts in Tokyo. “Compared to 2016, the responsibility and expectations are a lot,” she says, letting out a nervous smile. The pandemic will occupy a corner of her mind. “It will be tough for the International Olympic Committee to pull off a bio bubble at the Games because it is a big event, and we must all take care,” she says. “But I will go with a mindset of getting the gold. That is the ultimate aim.”