PV Sindhu showed on Thursday that grit backed by precise strategy can lift a nation from also-ran to medal contender.
An hour is a heartbeat in the span of a country, but the 51 minutes that saw Sindhu subdue Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara 21-19, 21-10 will forever be etched in memory as they are the most redeeming minutes in Rio for a nation of a billion plus at a stage that’s the pinnacle of sport. She next takes on world number one Carolina Marin in the final to fight for gold. She is assured of a silver already.
It was a contest between the Indian’s reach against the tenacious court coverage of the Japanese. The physicality of the contest apart, it was also a triumph of envisioning a precise gameplan and then, more crucially, executing it to precision.
Sindhu deftly denied Okuhara control of the net and looked to keep the shuttle deep even as she closed in for the kill. It appears that Sindhu’s coach, Pullela Gopichand, has imbibed the notions of the Chinese Art of War and Kautilya’s Arthasashtra and applied them to the form of warfare which sees a cork embedded with feathers wiz at speeds in excess of 326 kph.
“Something had to give and someone had to break. The pressure was immense. Sindhu held her nerve and that allowed her to close it out,” said Gopichand after the match. The coach could be seen exhorting his ward with uncharacteristically frantic urging as the match got to its moment of reckoning with the score tied at 10-10 in the second game.
This was the first Olympic Games for both 21-year-olds and no matter how strong in limb; big matches invariably sway the way of the one stronger of mind. Sindhu stepped on the accelerator to reel off eleven straight points to seal the second game. The match began 53 minutes later than its scheduled start as the earlier men’s doubles bronze medal match stretched on. That in turn implied that Sindhu had to warm up three times on account of the delay.
The Indian shuttler has had an indifferent early part of the year and also lost to Okuhara in February this year. However, when it came to the crunch, the inner strength of the mild-mannered young woman from Hyderabad came through. Sindhu smiles easy and looks like a little girl when her face breaks out in its usual quick grin. But out on court, she was all aggression, shrieking in joy when she clinched close points.
This new Sindhu is a far cry from the earlier version that found it tough to be expressive out on court. A singles finals berth in her first outing on this stage proves that she has the mettle to push beyond her present world ranking of 10 implies. “The greatest asset is a strong mind,” she had posted on Facebook April-end. “If I know someone is training harder than I am, I have no excuses,” she had finished that post implying that the new regime by coach Gopichand was putting her through the paces to ensure she peaked at the Games.
The Indian has a tough opponent in the flamenco-loving Spaniard who, at 23, is competing at her second Games having lost out in the group stage at London. Strategy will stay key and Sindhu has Gopichand in her corner to bolster that aspect.
The other key will be recovery as the semis would have taken an immense toll of nervous energy apart from the hectic movement that the Japanese demanded from her opponent before getting subdued. Sindhu will use ice packs and look to cool down in the pool provided the erratic wind here does not pick up in the evening.
The Indian camp is far from satisfied. “We’re in a unique, god-gifted place where we have the chance to lift the spirit of the nation with our performance. And not many people are in this advantageous position. I have kept telling Srikanth and Sindhu that we’re really blessed by God to have this opportunity, and we should grab it and use it,” said Gopichand. Sindhu’s own avowed ambition is to win an Olympic gold. India’s lone individual medallist, Abhinav Bindra, took to twitter to say: “I’m waiting for you to join me in the club. You have no idea how lonely it’s been!!!”