Long-distance journeys hold fond memories for Pusarla Venkata Sindhu. As an eight-year-old badminton tyro, when her father PV Ramana drove her all the way to the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy from Secunderabad, she never complained about the 56-kilometre daily commute. For eight years, the commute was the time when Sindhu and her dad chatted about the sport’s highs and lows, her mental preparation and how much she looked forward to the pre-dawn training sessions with Gopichand.
It was on another long-distance journey that the 21-year-old, the first Indian shuttler to reach an Olympic final, realised she’d made a smooth landing on the nation’s collective psyche. This time Sindhu was checking thousands of messages that had flooded her Twitter timeline on the flight back from Rio. “I had got my mobile phone back after three months and thankfully we had Wi-Fi on the flight. As soon as I unlocked my phone, there was a torrent of congratulatory messages for the Olympic silver. I became so emotional that I spent the rest of the 16-hour flight responding to every message. Although it had been an exhausting three weeks, I didn’t feel sleepy, or tired,” remarks Sindhu.
The victory rush continued once she landed at the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport in Hyderabad. All the way from Shamshabad on the city’s outskirts, to the Gachibowli Stadium, where she first picked up the racquet, women, men and schoolchildren holding aloft banners applauding her triumph at the highest sporting arena were waving at her. They were chanting her name and exhibiting the warm hospitality the city of Nizams reserves for its sporting heroes.
Such a long journey...
The back-breaking commute is a distant memory. The family has since shifted to Kokapet near Gachibowli and today, the celebrated Olympic silver winner breezes into the academy every day, driving her gleaming red BMW 320d, gifted to her by V Chamundeshwarnath, President of the Hyderabad Badminton Association. “I enjoy driving it. We stay close by and I had a good car even four years ago. But the BMW is still special because it arrived along with the realisation of my childhood dream: of winning a medal at the Olympics,” says Sindhu with a smile.
A stress-free commute to badminton practice isn’t the only by-product of her recently acquired celebrity status. Suddenly, she is being hounded for selfies by admirers at airport lounges around the world and being chased for endorsements and publishing deals. At the auction for the second edition of the Premier Badminton League (PBL) at Delhi’s ITC Sheraton hotel, although it also featured Carolina Marin and Saina Nehwal, she is being presented as a marquee star. A posse of journalists chases her as soon as the press conference is over and holds on to every word that the five feet 11 inches tall champion is saying.
“I won’t say I don’t enjoy the attention,” says Sindhu. “Life after the Olympics has been a series of felicitations and sponsor engagements. But that is not the real deal. What matters more is that many more young kids are picking up the racquet after my silver. Also, thanks to the exposure provided by the PBL, many more parents are coming to the academy requesting that their children be trained in badminton. That is a matter of great personal satisfaction,” says the champion, who slayed the planet’s top players en route to the final in Rio.
Even before the Olympics, Sindhu’s sporting resume was impressive. She has won two bronze medals at the World Badminton Championship, was honoured with the Arjuna Award at the age of 18 in 2013 and the Padma Shri in 2015. But her favourite stomping ground is the Macau Open, a title she has won three years in succession. And then came the high of the Olympics.
The daughter of national level volleyball players (her father Ramana is also an Arjuna awardee), Sindhu waves aside the adulation and the weight of a nation’s expectations. An Olympic silver is just the beginning of her sporting journey, she says. “You cannot really hope to win everywhere. Right after Rio, I had to play in big tournaments at the Denmark Open and the French Open in Paris. And day after tomorrow, I am headed for China, Hong Kong and Macau,” Sindhu told this reporter after the auction.
Playing on the badminton tour involves living out of suitcases as well as unpacking and packing your racquets as soon as an event is over. So, during the weeks she spent in exotic Rio, Sindhu was sweating it out in strategy sessions, without getting a single peek at the touristy Brazil. “My friends don’t believe me when I say I didn’t do any sightseeing in Rio. But having been away from home for three weeks, I booked a return ticket the very next day after the final. I still have to visit Christ the Redeemer and the Copacabana beach!” she exclaims. “Like any other 21-year-old, I would love to take a holiday abroad one of these days but unfortunately, given my schedule, it may not be possible,” rues Sindhu, with sage-like wisdom. But in the next moment, she returns to acting her age, declaring like an exuberant millennial: “But I can always shop! While in Paris for the French Open, having lost in the early rounds, I was a little depressed. I couldn’t even visit the Eiffel Tower this time too. But on the way back, I rewarded myself by picking up some stylish clothes at the airport,” she giggles.
Sindhu loves to dress well and wear make-up. After the Olympics, her sartorial sensibilities have acquired a new degree of sophistication and she leans a lot on Tollywood stylist Shravya Verma to put her wardrobe together for special occasions. “Shravya helps me pick up my clothes for events,” says Sindhu about the stylist who is also associated with dressing up a few Telugu movie stars including Lakshmi Manchu and Sneha Ullal.
For the Brunch shoot, Sindhu transforms into a diva. In a crimson Gauri-Nainika gown, she radiates grace, poise and the looks of a winner. But there is one stylist demand she cannot accede to: wearing high heels. “Although I would love to wear them, but after a stress fracture on my left foot in 2014, I have to be careful.”
Not wearing high heels is one of the smallest sacrifices a girl may have to make in her quest to become an Olympian athlete. Sindhu had to make a number of tough choices in order to realise her childhood dream. Apart from staying off WhatsApp and social media before key tournaments, she routinely gives up her favourite Hyderabadi biryani and sweetened curd. She even had to miss her class X board exams when they clashed with a tournament and skipped her elder sister’s wedding since she was playing in the final of a tournament in Lucknow. Still, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “Ever since I was 10 and began taking the game seriously, I’ve worked towards this. Before me, no woman from India had won an Olympic silver. That’s a record nobody can take away. Now, I need to do well in the All-England championship and Super Series events,” she says.
On November 19, Sindhu lived up to her promise by winning the Super Series China Open, beating local favourite Sun Yu in the final. But once she returns home in December, it will be back to the 4 am training sessions under the eagle eye of Pullela Gopichand.
Think of the journey, not the destination, did someone say?
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Rapid five with Sindhu
* Why is playing baddy good for everybody?
Playing badminton for 30 minutes every day is a complete workout that can suit everybody irrespective of their gender.
* Your goal for the Premier Badminton League this year...
Giving fans in India’s cities an opportunity to watch Carolina [Marin] and me play in flesh and blood after seeing us on television in Rio and hopefully, taking the Chennai Smashers to the finals.
* What is the coolest thing about life on the badminton tour?
The shopping! On the way back, mostly at airports, I like to indulge in some retail therapy. Like any girl my age, I love buying good clothes and make-up.
* We hear you are a cinema buff...
Yes, I love both Bollywood and Tollywood. My favourite Telugu actors are Mahesh Babu and Prabhas. But it has become tough to watch a movie in a theatre after the Olympics. The last Hindi film I watched was Salman Khan’s Sultan and in Telugu it was Naga Chaitanya’s Premam.
* Your biggest indulgence?
Hyderabadi dum biryani with mutton keema and fish cooked by my mother.