Pusarla Venkata Sindhu was accorded a hero’s welcome in Hyderabad, on August 22 and gifts were showered on her by state governments and celebrities. The first Indian woman to win a silver at the Games, Sindhu had finally come out of the shadow of former bronze medallist, Saina Nehwal.
But this is just the beginning for Sindhu. She was underrated at the start of the Rio Games, but the bar will be raised for her at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The 21-year-old will also have to take on fellow finalist Carolina Marin, compatriot Saina and a host of east-Asian opponents in her quest to become world number one.
“It is a great honour to play against these world champions,” she says. “There are no preconceived strategies before I enter the court. I play my game depending on my opponent's style of play. I have been competing in badminton for over a decade now. Over the years, I have become more confident and resilient.”
Sindhu is not wary of her opponents, nor does she disregard them. “Nobody is a rival,” she says. “Everybody is a lover of this sport and I respect their style of play and their passion for the sport.”
Sindhu, though on a break, realises that she now has a responsibility on her shoulder. “There has been an overwhelming response to me and my coach and for the sport. Yes, surely, the expectations are going to be high. But I shall stay steady and play my game to the best of my abilities,” she says. “My immediate aim is to train for the upcoming Super Series—a title I have not won—and improve my world ranking."
Gopichand, on the other hand, calmly says, “It is a little early, but we will plan. We focused on the Rio Olympics till now. Now we will sit down and plan for the next tournament.”
According to Gopichand, Sindhu must become smarter on court and face challenges with spirit. “We need to strengthen this aspect in her,” he says. He also feels that the need of the moment is a combination of alertness, experience and steely nerves. “Marin also made mistakes. But Sindhu made some which were crucial,” he notes.
The 42-year-old felt the planning, as well as the execution, was perfect against her opponents leading up to the final, crediting Sindhu's aggressive style of play. Even in the final, the team's strategy was on point and worked well against Marin. But the Spaniard took advantage of Sindhu's errors.
Sindhu feels that her life has changed after the silver medal. But she insists that she will remain grounded. Though she has proved her greatness, she concedes that there was a time when she was not as aggressive. From her father, Ramanna Pusarla, and Gopichand, she learnt to be aggressive and more vocal.
Sindhu acknowledges that Gopichand is special to her because of his patience. “He never loses his cool and young players can easily approach him. I grew up watching him and Saina on TV. She was my idol when I came to the court,” she says.
The coach was cool and composed all through the matches in Rio. “I kept calm because I wanted her to be confident. I was conveying that message to her through my posture,” he says.
Gopichand is known to be a shy, but serious, person who believes in discipline and hard work. Learning and adapting, he says, work best for him. Having coached both flag-bearers of present-day Indian badminton, Saina and Sindhu, he is no stranger to success.
He is happy that India has become a force to reckon with in world badminton and he plans to focus on doubles as well. His academy, he reveals, has several promising doubles players. He hopes to mould more winners and feels he has the motivation and energy to continue.
“Both Saina and Sindhu are huge driving forces behind the rise of Indian badminton. They are different players by nature. We (India) have two players who are fantastic and every coach would want that,” says Gopichand. Luckily for him, Sindhu is a hard worker and just like Saina, a workhorse.
Gopichand acknowledges the team work at his academy. In fact, preparation for Sindhu’s Rio campaign started a year ago. A weight trainer and physical fitness expert helped her build stamina and strength to engage in rallies and to be swift and precise.
Sindhu is starstruck after Amitabh Bachchan tweeted that he wanted a selfie with her. She was over the moon when Sachin Tendulkar and Rajinikanth tweeted congratulatory messages after her feat. She now has a BMW in her driveway and has hinted at driving it to practice every day. Until now, her father dropped and picked her up. It was during these trips that her father helped her realise the importance of playing under the Indian flag. Those pep talks could probably go a long way in the making of a champion.