Match Point

PV Sindhu within reach of the top

01 August, 2017

IN THEORY, it should have been an easy match for Pusarla Venkata Sindhu.

It was March, and the first round of the India Open, one of the Badminton World Federation’s elite Super Series tournaments, was underway. Sindhu, the world’s fifth-ranked player and an Olympic silver medallist, was pitted against the one-hundred-and-fifty-second-ranked Arundhati Pantawane. Twenty-seven-year-old Pantawane had won the gold medal at the Indian National Games in 2011, and her world ranking had peaked at number 40 in 2014, before a knee injury forced her to take 18 months off. She had made a comeback in July last year, and was playing well, but the 21-year-old Sindhu was fitter, six inches taller, in better form and a technically stronger player.

Yet, it was Pantawane who first opened up a lead. Sindhu started with a few careless errors, and after a long, nervous rally, suddenly found herself 1–4 down.

“Slow!” PV Ramana, Sindhu’s father, cried out from the stands. When I had met him earlier in March, he had told me that one of the primary reasons Sindhu lost to Tai Tzu Ying—the current world number one—at the All-England Championships this year was that once she fell behind early in the first game, she allowed her opponent to dictate the pace. Tai, who has an unhurried, almost serene playing style, and a wrist so devious that it leaves you in constant suspense about where the shuttle is going, had wasted little time between points, as Sindhu racked up unforced errors. “Later, in the car on the way back, I told her this, and she said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me during the match?’” Ramana recounted. He had tried, but had been drowned out by the loud Birmingham crowd.

The thin attendance on this day in Delhi, however, meant that the message got across. Sure enough, after winning the next point with a deceptive cross-court net shot—which has the potential of becoming a more potent weapon in her arsenal than even the smash—Sindhu paused, first retying her shoelaces and then examining the shuttle.

The two then engaged in a see-saw battle, testing each other with deft placement rather than outright pace. Sindhu has sometimes struggled to maintain the level of play that has made her one of the world’s top badminton players, and has often lost to adversaries considered less able. Even in this match, while her opponent seemed to be fighting hard, Sindhu did not seem to be playing her best, as if  waiting to shift to a higher gear.

It proved unnecessary, as Pantawane’s play began slipping. From 15 all, a combination of unforced errors on her part and tenacious defence on Sindhu’s allowed the latter to reach game point, which she won with a couple of ruthless smashes. She took the game 21–17.

The gear-shift came in the second game. Sindhu picked up the pace, hitting far more smashes than in the first game, and Pantawane seemed hapless at times, unable to keep up. They went into the mid-game break with the score at 11–3, and Sindhu soon wrapped things up, winning 21–17, 21–6 in just over 30 minutes.

SINDHU,WHO WON A SILVER MEDAL at the 2016 Rio Olympics at the age of 21, is widely considered one of the most talented badminton players in the world. Over the past few years, she has repeatedly beaten the best in the sport, including Tai Tzu Ying, Carolina Marin and Li Xuerui.

Sindhu seems to have all the necessary ingredients for sporting success. At five feet and 11 inches, she is taller than most other players, and has unusually high stamina. She started playing badminton early, at the age of eight, in Hyderabad, historically a hub for the sport. Both her parents have sports backgrounds, and have dedicated the past decade of their lives to Sindhu’s career. She has also not had to struggle with motivation. Pullela Gopichand, her coach and a former badminton player himself, once told The Hindu that “the most striking feature in Sindhu’s game is her attitude and the never-say-die spirit.”

PV Sindhu’s athletic build and excellent fitness has been one of the reasons for her success. At five feet and 11 inches, she is taller than most other players, and has unusually high stamina. KIN CHEUNG/AP PHOTO

Sindhu has also benefitted from the boom in Indian badminton, which began in the early 2000s. While she and Saina Nehwal are at the very top of the international women’s game, there are as many as six Indian players ranked inside the world top 50 in men’s singles. Many of these players have trained at Gopichand’s badminton academy, which he started in 2008, and which has arguably been one of the driving forces behind India’s badminton renaissance. Even as Gopichand has upped the standard of coaching in the country, a steady influx of money into the sport has ensured quality facilities and financial support for players.

The expectations for Sindhu, who has been at the forefront of this boom, have been unusually high. Since her success has come at such a young age, many believe that Sindhu is meant for even greater things—specifically, the top spot in world rankings and a gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The Indonesian Mulyo Handoyo—who, along with Gopichand, is India’s national coach—told me, “If a young player can make it to top six, top ten by the age of 21, they can reach the top in the next one or two years.” In other words, Sindhu is now in her prime, and must make the most of it before the next generation dethrones her. A day after the Rio final, which Sindhu lost to Carolina Marin, the journalist Shivani Naik wrote in the Indian Express, “It would be a great disservice to a talent as promising as PV Sindhu to say that the 21-year-old has given her best at this Olympics. ... PV Sindhu is such a big contender for gold at Tokyo that every step she takes from here on—including how she processes this silver—will be seen against that mark.”

How she has processed the silver is still just becoming clear. As the first game against Pantawane showed, Sindhu seems to struggle with consistency. Of the last five tournaments she has played, she has lost early in three of them to lower-ranked opponents. In the other two tournaments, she lost to rivals Tai Tzu Ying and Marin.

Sindhu’s father, PV Ramana, was part of the Indian volleyball team that won the bronze medal at the 1986 Asian Games. Seeing Sindhu’s interest in badminton, he decided to get her formal training at the age of eight. HARSHA VADLAMANI FOR THE CARAVAN

Sindhu has already shown that, at her best, she can beat just about any opponent. But can she deliver her best consistently and can she deliver it on big occasions? Since the battle on those fronts is more mental than physical, the question, really, is: can Sindhu overcome herself?

SINDHU’S PARENTS, Ramana and Vijayalakshmi, were both national-level volleyball players, and employees of the Indian Railways under its quota for sportspersons. Ramana, as part of the Indian volleyball team, won the bronze medal at the 1986 Asian Games, and received the Arjuna Award, a national sports honour, in 2000. It was at the badminton court in the railway colony in Secunderabad, next to her parents’ volleyball court, that Sindhu was introduced to the game as after-school recreation, at the age of eight. She soon began to go there daily.

Even as a child, Sindhu was ambitious. Her father had a visiting card identifying him as “PV Ramana, Arjuna Awardee, Assistant Coach.” The card had the insignia of a volleyball player in position to receive the ball. One day, Sindhu took one of the cards and made some modifications. She drew some feathers on the volleyball to make it look like a shuttle, drew a racquet in the player’s hand, struck off her father’s name and replaced it with her own. The precocious child’s prediction would come true a decade later, when she won the Arjuna Award. Last year, she also became one of the youngest ever recipients of Indian sports’ highest honour, the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna.

Seeing her interest in badminton, Ramana decided to train his daughter and enter her in tournaments. He also felt there was much more scope for making a living in an individual sport like badminton than in less popular team sports such as volleyball or basketball. “I was confident she would be national champion when she was playing the under-10s,” he said, “with her movements, the way she was running, the attitude, her spirit.”

Since her parents had both played a sport at the highest level, they knew what it would take to succeed in competitive sports—“what is the exact diet, what is required for the child, what is the rest required, and how the encouragement has to be given from the parents’ side,” Ramana told me. He added that he knew what kinds of exercises Sindhu needed to develop vital attributes, “especially agility and coordination of the body.” Ramana started training Sindhu with the railways athletes he was coaching.

Ramana, now a senior sports officer, took two years off starting in 2015 to oversee his daughter’s career. He still accompanies her to daily practice, and often shouts instructions from the sidelines. Vijayalakshmi took voluntary retirement four years ago in order to devote more time to Sindhu’s diet and well-being.

When Sindhu’s parents felt she would benefit from formal coaching, they had access to the best facilities in the country. In 2003, she started training under the tutelage of Mir Mahboob Ali at his academy, at the Indian Railways Institute of Signal Engineering and Telecommunications Stadium in Secunderabad. Though Ali had not enjoyed extraordinary success as a player, he was known for his eye for talent.

After two years under Ali, in search of better competition, Sindhu switched to playing at the badminton courts at Hyderabad’s Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium, where the Sports Authority of India ran classes.

But the coaching programme at the LB Stadium soon shifted to the newly opened GMC Balayogi Athletic Stadium at Gachibowli—a Hyderabad suburb 28 kilometres away from her family’s home. Ramana told Sindhu he could not ferry her every day. He wanted to put a stop to the training, but was convinced by Goverdhan Reddy, one of the coaches in Gachibowli, to let her attend once or twice a week.

Sindhu, however, was hooked. After a couple of classes, she insisted that she wanted to play daily. She had proven she was serious about the game and demonstrated her potential by winning both the singles and doubles titles at the Under-10 All India Ranking Championships in 2005, so her parents were persuaded. They hired a van to drive Sindhu to and from the stadium.

“Initially, it was very tough for us,” Sindhu told me this March, “because in the morning I used to go at five o’clock, then again I had to come back at eight, then go to school, come back at 3.30 pm, then go to the stadium at Gachibowli, then again come back. By the time I would come back, because of the traffic, it would be 10 pm.” The sheer amount of time she spent training meant she never managed to make many friends outside badminton, though her outgoing nature has ensured she has made many of them within the game. At tournaments, her father or her coaches often have to hurry her along so that she does not linger too long shooting the breeze with others in the locker room.

“IT'S VERY DIFFICULT TO BE FRIENDS WITH OPPONENTS,” Saina Nehwal told the Times of India in January 2014, when asked about her relationship with Sindhu. “It is true that we train together and talk to each other every day, but we don’t have time to become good friends.” At the time, both players were in the global top ten, and both trained at the Gopichand Badminton Academy. Together, the two are arguably the best badminton players to have come out of India, and remain the only ones to have won Olympic medals—Nehwal won bronze in 2012.

“On court, the rivalry is always there,” Sindhu told me. “Off court, we’re normal. It’s just ‘Hi,’ ‘Bye.’ We don’t meet, actually. She’s in Bangalore; I’m in Hyderabad. We don’t meet at all.”

Gopichand said in May that he does not mind the rivalry as long as it improves the players’ performances.

Nehwal was Gopichand’s first major success. Born in the Haryana town of Hisar, she moved to Hyderabad in 1998, when her father, Harvir Singh, an agricultural scientist, found a new job as a lecturer at a local university. Eight years old at the time, she spoke no Telugu and found it hard to make friends. Her father tried to stave off her loneliness by pushing her into sports, initially sending her to judo and karate classes. “The karate coaching came to an abrupt end in December 1998,” the journalist TS Sudhir wrote in Saina Nehwal: An Inspirational Biography, “when during a demonstration, the instructor prepared to run a motorbike over the hands of the students. Saina’s parents did not allow that and withdrew her from karate.”

That same month, Harvir took his daughter along to the LB Stadium when he went there to inquire about renting it for a university tournament. “The precocious side of Saina took over when she spotted the racquets kept by the courts,” Sudhir wrote. She started swinging one of them, just like she had seen her parents do back in Hisar, where they were a formidable amateur mixed doubles team. (Usha Rani, her mother, is a former state champion, and played a major part in Nehwal’s early development as a badminton player.) PSS Nani Prasad Rao, the coach at LB Stadium, watched her, and, noting her grip on the racquet, suggested to Harvir that he send her for a summer camp the following year. At that camp, she was selected by the Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh as a regular trainee. After training with Nani Prasad, Mahboob Ali and Gopichand’s old coach SM Arif, she began training under Gopichand, in 2004.

By the time Gopichand opened his academy, Nehwal had already established herself as his most promising prospect, on the verge of breaking into the top ten. She had had a tremendous run through the junior ranks, and won the Philippines Open as a 16-year-old, and then the Junior World Championships in 2008. That year, she also became the first Indian woman to reach the quarterfinals of the Olympic badminton tournament. She then became the first Indian to win a Super Series event, taking victory at the Indonesia Open in 2009.

Nehwal followed this up with her annus mirabilis—she won the Singapore, Indonesia and Hong Kong Open Super Series events, the India Open, and gold at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, to rise to second in the world rankings. Her bronze at the London Olympics was the first medal for India in badminton.

But a string of poor results followed, including a streak of five successive quarterfinal exits at the World Championships. There were 150 players training with Gopichand at the time, including Sindhu, Nehwal felt she was not getting enough attention. She parted ways with Gopichand and began training with Vimal Kumar in Bengaluru.

Changing coaches had an immediate impact, as she won the China Open in 2014, reached the final of the 2015 All-England Championships, and then won the India Open to become the world’s top-ranked player, emulating Prakash Padukone’s feat from over 30 years earlier. She also won silver at the World Championships in 2015. Unlike Gopichand, Kumar did not believe in dictating strategy to his senior players, and encouraged Nehwal to analyse her own game and think for herself while playing. The new team around her has acknowledged the fact that, as she ages, Nehwal’s recovery times are bound to increase. So she has developed a more aggressive game designed to keep points and games shorter. Overall, she has won 23 titles, including ten Super Series events.

The debate over whether Sindhu or Nehwal is a better badminton player still rages. Until the India Open this year, they had played each other in an international event just once, in the finals of the 2014 Syed Modi International in Lucknow. They had been the top two seeds, and Nehwal had triumphed over her 19-year-old opponent, 21–14, 21–17. They have crossed paths thrice in the Premier Badminton League, though those matches do not count in their official statistics. In 2013, when it was still called the Indian Badminton League, Nehwal beat Sindhu twice: 21–19, 21–8 in the group stages, and 21–15, 21–7 in the final. (“For many, the start of the Saina Nehwal vs PV Sindhu rivalry should have been much more special,” the journalist Ashish Magotra wrote about the encounters. “Instead, what we saw was a demolition job that represented not so much a rivalry but a schooling.”) But this year, in the semifinals of the PBL, Nehwal lost to Sindhu, 7–11, 8–11.

Sindhu and Saina Nehwal are arguably the best badminton players to have come out of India, and remain the only ones to have won Olympic medals. This year, they played a closely fought match at the India Open in which Sindhu beat Nehwal 21–16, 22–20. CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Their next meeting was scheduled for 31 March this year, the quarterfinals of the India Open. When I entered Delhi’s Siri Fort stadium shortly before their match, I found it greatly transformed from how it had been over the rest of the tournament, during the previous two days. The VVIP stand, which had been occupied by fewer than ten people over the last two rounds, was almost full, as were all the stands directly overlooking the courts. Even the upper tiers teemed with people.

A tournament sponsor had handed out thousands of inflatable noisemaker sticks, and as the two local favourites walked from the locker room to centre court, the crowd put them to good use. People pulled out their phones to capture the moment, leading to an appeal over the public-address system to desist from flash photography.

Sindhu won the first point, in which the two players felt each other out over an 18-shot rally. In the second, Nehwal took the first opportunity she found to smash a winner to Sindhu’s left. After Sindhu returned the favour to go 2–1 up, Nehwal equalised by hitting another smash straight into Sindhu. “Come on!” she shouted, displaying an intensity of emotion far removed from her usual stoicism. Both players had insisted before the match that they would treat it like any other, but their demeanour betrayed considerable nervousness. Sindhu seemed the tenser of the two, playing some tentative shots and misjudging where a clearance would land to fall behind 5–7.

Speaking to ESPN last year, Carolina Marin’s coach, Fernando Rivas, noted the similarities between the two. “Both are very gritty players; they really want to win and both have different styles of attacking play. Saina needs to play more around the court and her strokes under pressure are probably the best in the circuit. It’s very difficult to score against her. Sindhu, on the other hand, has some very good steep smashes, cross smashes, a huge array of attacking strokes and a great defence.” All of this was on display in the early points of the match. Again enjoying a six-inch height advantage, Sindhu tried to hit the shuttle beyond her opponent’s reach. Nehwal, who deftly handled anything directed straight at her, focussed on subtle placement and body smashes. Unlike in the previous two matches, where she had been slow to warm up her power game, Sindhu got her smashes in from the start—she hit two particularly nasty ones to go into the break, leading 11–9. But, unlike Pantawane or Saena Kawakami of Japan, Sindhu’s second-round opponent, Nehwal demonstrated great reflexes and an icy calm to return almost everything Sindhu threw at her. In keeping with her new energy-saving regimen, Nehwal too made her fair share of attacking shots.

After the mid-game interval, Sindhu strung together four excellent points, thoroughly outplaying Nehwal in each. At 16–11, after her progress had been checked somewhat, she held her nerve over a 30-shot rally, first trading net shots, then holding on when pushed back to the baseline, and returning a drop shot by lifting the shuttle over Nehwal for it to land in the corner of the court. Nehwal had let it go, thinking it would go long; both players were struggling a little with their judgment because of the drift inside the stadium. Sindhu’s lead was pretty much unassailable at this point. Though Nehwal tried to fight her way back, Sindhu converted the first of her three game points with an unreturnable drop shot. Sindhu, who had never beaten Nehwal at an international fixture, had won the first game.

The modern form of badminton was developed by British soldiers stationed in India, playing in their gymkhanas, with the first rules being written in the military cantonment at Pune in 1873. HULTON AECHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

THE MODERN FORM OF BADMINTON was developed by British soldiers stationed in India, playing in their gymkhanas, with the first rules being written in the military cantonment at Pune in 1873. (In the early years, this form of the game was known as “Poona.”)

When the sport began to be played competitively, it was dominated by three countries—Denmark, the Malay States (now Malaysia) and Indonesia. Among women, the United States emerged as an early power, winning the first three installations of the Uber Cup—a major international women’s team tournament—but was soon eclipsed by Japan, which won five of the next six.

The world order in badminton was upended with the entry of the Chinese. Sporting excellence had been proposed as a path that could help the country shed the label of the “Sick Man of East Asia,” which it had acquired in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when it was considered economically and politically weak. The aristocratic disdain for physical activity of the late Qing period was rejected, and sporting contests, tied to national honour and avenging past insults, began to assume the trappings of war. After the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949, the People’s Republic of China began investing heavily in training facilities and sporting education. Badminton, which had become popular among the rich during its international expansion in the 1920s, began to spread among the masses as Chinese emigrants to Indonesia returned home. In those days, the rival governments in both Beijing and Taipei claimed they represented the country of China. As a result, the International Badminton Federation barred players from the Chinese mainland from its events. But the mainland Chinese showed how well they had taken to the sport by winning all 24 singles matches on a tour of Denmark in 1965.

Prakash Padukone’s win at the 1981 All-England Championships brought badminton into India’s national consciousness. DINODIA PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

Once the People’s Republic of China was formally inducted into the IBF in 1981, after 19 Asian and African associations threatened to break away in part because of its prolonged exclusion, the country began its domination of the sport in earnest. It won nine of the next 16 editions of the Thomas Cup—a prestigious men’s team event—and has reached the final of every Uber Cup it has entered, winning 14 and losing three. Before China was upset by South Korea in the final of the Sudirman Cup—a mixed-team event—in May, it had won ten of the 11 previous editions. Since badminton was introduced at the Barcelona Olympics, in 1992, China has won 18 gold medals in the sport.

India never quite emerged as a badminton powerhouse, despite being an affiliate member of the IBF since 1936. The country never invested in the sport as the Chinese government did, leaving the traditional nurseries of Indian sport—universities, the armed forces and public-sector enterprises—to pick up the slack. As a result, the large number of Indian players who took up badminton due to its popularity found access to facilities, equipment and coaching, as well as financial security during and after their careers, sorely lacking. The history of Indian badminton is a history of doing more with less.

When Mir Mahboob Ali, then a junior player who had mistakenly sent his entry to the senior tournament, faced the six-time winner Nandu Natekar in the first round of the 1967 National Championships, he did so with a racquet that cost Rs 7 compared to Natekar’s 120-rupee Dunlop. He won only one point in the match, but impressed Natekar enough to have him put in a good word with a sports-equipment company, which gave Ali free racquets for the rest of his career. Despite his considerable promise, though, Ali found it difficult to travel abroad for tournaments, as did most of his contemporaries.

Prakash Padukone, whose parents encouraged him as a child to emulate Ali’s “touch play”—a style that relies on placement rather than power—took the art to new heights. His father, the secretary of the Mysore Badminton Association, initiated him into the sport, but, the sports historian Ronojoy Sen wrote, “like most Indian sportspersons of the time, Padukone achieved what he did with little help from the state. He honed his skills in a wedding hall in the Canara Union, a religious and social centre for the Chitrapur Saraswats, the caste group to which he belonged, and at the Malleshwaram Association’s court in Bangalore.” The high ceiling at the Canara Union proved a catalyst for touch play, allowing Padukone to slow down rallies with high clearances and catch opponents off-guard with deceptive net shots—a strategy that proved well suited to take on the speed and power of the top Chinese and Indonesian players.

Padukone reached the quarterfinals of the All-England Championships, the sport’s most prestigious tournament, as an 18-year-old in 1973. He could not travel to the tournament the three following years, but reached the quarterfinals again in 1977 and in 1978, when he also won gold at the Commonwealth Games. A foot injury kept him out of the 1979 edition, but he was well prepared in 1980. He had acclimatised to the cold English weather by spending three months training in Scandinavia and winning the Swedish and Danish Opens, and had developed a strategy that would minimise the effect of stray gusts of wind at London’s Wembley Stadium. After emulating Prakash Nath’s feat of making the tournament final in 1947, he defeated the world number one and two-time defending champion, Liem Swie King of Indonesia, 15–3, 15–10. Padukone had taken the Tube to Wembley from his accommodations at a YMCA and carried his own bags; he would have taken public transport again after his triumph, but a representative of the Indian embassy offered him a ride home.

“The All England win did more than just enhance the country’s prestige,” Dev Sukumar, his biographer, wrote. “Within the country it created a revolution. It pitchforked badminton into national consciousness, making it on par with cricket and hockey. It created a reference point for Indian sporting history; henceforth, all sporting accomplishments would be measured against this.” Even so, when Padukone decided to quit his secure banking job and relocate to Denmark, where he had been offered a one-year contract to play for Copenhagen’s Hvidovre Badminton Club in the newly founded professional league, his parents resisted. He went nonetheless, and spent most of his remaining career training in Denmark; his daughter Deepika, the future Bollywood star, was born in Copenhagen in 1986. After retirement, Padukone came back to India and established his badminton academy at the same Canara Union hall in Bengaluru in 1994.

Prakash Padukone’s win at the 1981 All-England Championships brought badminton into India’s national consciousness. HARSHA VADLAMANI

In 1996, recovering from two knee surgeries after tearing a ligament and meniscus when he collided with his partner during a doubles match, Gopichand enrolled at Padukone’s academy. An attacking player who refused to prolong rallies through defensive play as his coaches advised, Gopichand was a bit of a maverick, and left the academy after a few years because he felt encumbered by Padukone’s perfectionist style. Although he then trained under the coach Ganguly Prasad at the LB Stadium, he was very much his own man, formulating his own strategies. In the late 1990s, while playing professionally in Germany, he sought out the Chinese coach Wang Xuyan to work on his fitness.

Gopichand had the talent to back up his defiance. Concentrating on his singles career, he went on to win five national championships in a row. In 2001, he accomplished what only Padukone had before him—he defeated the top-ranked Peter Gade en route to becoming the second Indian to win the All-England Championships. Fame and fortune followed, and badminton gained eyeballs at a time when the number of people with discretionary incomes that could be spent on sports training and equipment was increasing.

Rather than being elated at his victory, Gopichand was disappointed that it had taken so long, coming only at the age of 27. Throughout his career, he had had to make do with limited resources. When he was training as a 16-year-old in Hyderabad, all players would be given just one shuttle per day; his mother once had to sell off some jewellery to buy him racquets. Without world-class facilities at home, he had trained abroad, in Germany, Indonesia, Denmark and elsewhere. “And in none of these places did they allow me to use their national training centres,” he told the Indian Express. “In England they did, but the quality was poor—I was the best player out there. The ones who were good didn’t allow me to gain from them. Only if I was beneficial to somebody was I allowed in. This made me realise that if I really wanted to beat the world, I had to have the programme in my own backyard.”

His skills as a strategist aside, Gopichand felt he had not had the proper guidance that a champion required. His campaign in the 2000 Sydney Olympics illustrated this. “He had been at his peak—game-wise and physically—but had lacked the most crucial support at Sydney 2000,” Naik wrote last year. “The national coach hadn’t bothered to recce his opponent’s game, and in the third round, Gopichand went down to Indonesian H Hendrawan. He might have looked back to the chair looking for crucial answers at important junctures—you know how players look pleadingly because the mad rush of the game means they can’t process it all—but nothing useful was forthcoming then. Somewhere that day, when it hit Gopichand that his best chance of winning an Olympics was botched, it had crystallised in his head that he wouldn’t allow another Indian to feel rudderless in front of the watching world.”

Like Padukone, he decided to set up an academy in his hometown to nurture the next generation of badminton talents, to provide them with what he had been denied. But it was easier said than done. The state government of Andhra Pradesh leased him five acres in Gachibowli for 45 years at a nominal rate, but his vision for providing world-class training facilities and a foreign coach required significant capital investment. In 2004, through a mutual acquaintance, he approached Nimmagadda Prasad, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur who had made a fortune selling his company Matrix Labs to the US giant Mylan. “I had a feeling that he meant serious business in training the young talent and I had a lot of trust in his sincerity, commitment and genuine passion for coaching,” Prasad told The Hindu. “Honestly, when I took the final call to help him, I did not expect any returns or branding. All I looked for was that he should produce Olympic medallists.”

Prasad immediately advanced a loan for Rs 2 crore, and agreed to help Gopichand round up the rest of the required Rs 10 crore. When other benefactors were hard to come by, Prasad raised his contribution to Rs 5 crore, even agreeing to write off the loan. The sporting-goods company Yonex eventually signed on as a sponsor, and donations began trickling in, but Gopichand was still short of all the funds he needed. He eventually mortgaged his house to make up the deficit. The state-of-the-art academy—featuring eight badminton courts, accommodation for the players, a gym and health club, an athletics track, a swimming pool and a wellness centre—finally opened in 2008. (A second academy was opened nearby last year in collaboration with the Sports Authority of India, in order to accommodate the rising number of trainees.) Gopichand had already been named national coach two years earlier, and moved with his charges into the new facility. Sindhu was one of them.

Her early successes—she had won both under-10 and under-13 titles at seven major championships—had begun turning heads. The Badminton Association of India, or BAI, selected her to be part of an elite group of players for an intensive coaching camp in April 2008. Gopichand often took a personal interest in her, noting her high stamina, which was uncharacteristic of players her age. “This is one of the most significant aspects of her game and should take her a long way,” he told The Hindu that year.

To avoid a daily commute, she began staying at the academy’s dormitory, coming home only on Wednesday evenings and weekends. “In the starting, I faced a lot of financial pressure,” Ramana told me, “because those days, I used to pay Rs 12,000 plus for this academy, and the child was staying here. Also engaging a driver, petrol charges, all this was a bit expensive for me in those days. But you know, in those days, charges were also less, so somehow we could manage. Through the grace of god, the child has come up to this level and it is easier.”

Sindhu was in Class 8 at the time, and her attendance in school inevitably suffered. Although the Auxilium High School in Secunderabad was fairly lenient in this regard, her parents tried to ensure she kept up with her studies as much as possible. Later, both while she was studying for secondary school exams and pursuing a bachelor’s degree in commerce at St Anne’s College for Women, her teachers would come home every Sunday to give her tuitions. She graduated from college in the first division last year, and is now studying for an MBA.

She was a good student, all things considered. “I take it as a very prestigious thing that I never failed an exam,” she said. If she did, she feared, people would blame it on badminton. She would get up at three in the morning, and also study late into the night. Coaching did not stop during exams, and if there was a tournament, she would often miss the main exams and then write supplementary papers for each subject. “One day, the watchman”—at her examination centre—“asked me, ‘Madam, did you fail in all the exams?’ Shit! I was so embarrassed.”

Gopichand thought that the greatest weakness among Indian players was their lack of fitness. He initiated a taxing training regime, incorporating running, gym work and special exercises, along with three punishing practice sessions a day. He also micro-managed his wards’ diets, even raiding Nehwal’s fridge while on foreign tours in search of anything that might contain extra calories. “In the first few years, he was very strict,” Arvind Bhat, one of the country’s senior players at the time, told Naik. “My body couldn’t cope with his regimen. He believed that training should never be comfortable; it should be killing if the match has to look effortless. He believed our coaches had been too soft, and his sessions were hard.”

Gopichand quickly encountered friction. In 2007, when he insisted that all players miss two Super Series events in order to participate in a national camp, the former national champion Chetan Anand and the doubles pair of Jwala Gutta and Shruti Kurien applied to enter the tournament anyway. The Beijing Olympics were approaching and every ranking point mattered for qualification. But the BAI—which needed to endorse the players’ entries to tournaments—shot down the rebels’ attempts to defy their coach, and blocked the applications. The players refused to join the camp anyway. Tensions increased when, later that year, the BAI omitted them from consideration for the Sudirman Cup. It took months to resolve the tiff, and for the players to return to the circuit, and the lost time cost them dearly—after missing out on several tournaments, Anand failed to qualify for Beijing.

Younger trainees, many of whom had taken up the sport in earnest following Gopichand’s All-England victory, were more amenable to his policies. He was a hard taskmaster, Sindhu told me, “but that’s how he had to be. That’s how a coach has to be, basically, and that is very important for a player. I think what he said was right—it’s for us, not for him.”

Gopichand earned his players’ respect by not asking of them anything he would not do himself. For years, training would commence at 4 am, with the coach waking up two hours earlier than that to review tapes and staying at the academy for 15 hours a day. (When Handoyo took over daily practice, he pushed the morning session back to a more respectable 7.30 am, preferring two long sessions a day to Gopichand’s three.)

Sindhu has sometimes struggled to maintain the level of play that has made her one of the world’s best badminton players. While she has beaten many of the top players in the sport, she has also lost to several adversaries considered less able. ROBERTUS PUDYANTO/GETTY IMAGES

Gopichand also kept himself in shape, participating in fitness drills with his charges. He designed individualised training programmes, taking into account each player’s strengths and weaknesses, and chalked out strategies for all his top players. In 2012, when the tennis player Novak Djokovic popularised the ketogenic diet declaring it as the secret to his fitness, Gopichand tested it on himself, and eventually did not recommend it to his players because he felt it was too extreme. Before the Rio Olympics, he again cut carbohydrates from his diet so he could keep up with Sindhu, who is half his age, in practice.

AS NEHWAL AND SINDHU headed into their second game at the India Open quarterfinals, the Delhi crowd was split in its adulation, with supporters of each player cheering loudly for their favourite. The majority seemed to be backing Nehwal, perhaps because she had had a longer career and was born in the neighbouring state of Haryana. One particularly devoted partisan, a kid who insisted on watching from right up front in my stand, causing an old couple seated behind him to grumble, was trying to get a chant going: “Sai-na-Neh-wal-SAI-NA!” Every time Nehwal hit a smash, he shouted, “Oye!” His shouts grew in frequency and intensity as the second game began, and Nehwal stepped up the aggression, forcing Sindhu onto the back foot. After a smash following a 28-shot rally gave Nehwal a 2–1 lead, Sindhu tried to slow things down with a towel break. “Be ready to receive please,” the umpire told her. When Nehwal served, Sindhu’s return caught the net. Another unforced error followed, putting her 1–4 behind.

Sindhu soon clawed her way back, employing the tactical acumen she had developed since the pair last met in an international competition. After a lob sent her to the baseline, she hit a drop shot to Nehwal’s left, and, coming back to the net, got Nehwal to defend to her right before hitting another smash in the same direction, which Nehwal barely retrieved. She then forced Nehwal back, and when Nehwal tried to do the same by lobbing the shuttle over her, jumped three feet in the air and hit an unreturnable smash.

At 4–2, Nehwal tried a similar jump smash from the baseline. Sindhu not only got her racquet to it, but managed a particularly short cross-court drop that caught Nehwal on the wrong foot. Play was held up for a few seconds as Sindhu prepared to serve at 4–6 because the crowd started duelling “Saina!” and “Sindhu!” chants.

The players were feeding off the crowd’s energy, neither willing to give an inch. In a 24-shot rally, both of them fended off brutal smashes before Nehwal managed to hit a second body smash right into Sindhu to take a 7–5 lead. The duelling chants grew louder. There was a huge roar when Nehwal sliced a vicious return out of Sindhu’s reach, as there was when Sindhu hammered home two smashes a couple of points later. By 10–7, the crowd had taken up the kid’s “Oye!” calls for smashes, cheering throughout a long rally in which both players alternated in relentless attack and desperate defence. As Nehwal finished it off with yet another smash, sections of the crowd gave her a standing ovation. Both players walked off for the break to a round of applause.

Nehwal devoured a banana during the one-minute timeout, took a deep breath and got things started again. When she served at 13–10, both players returned multiple smashes that looked unreturnable. Sindhu eventually lost the point, having somehow reached back and retrieved one scorcher only to be floored by a second. She stayed on her knees for a moment and then went back to her kit bag for a drink of water. Her face looked downcast.

Nehwal seemed to be in control of the game, leading 16–12, but made two unforced errors in quick succession. Sindhu then managed to win a rally by hitting four smashes—she broke a string on the third—and, all of a sudden, it was 15–16. As the pair traded a few practice shots to get accustomed to the new racquet and shuttle—another casualty of the players’ onslaught—the crowd’s chants were merging to sound like “Saindhu! Saindhu!”

Sindhu helped Nehwal edge back into the lead after a few unforced errors—and, at 19–16, it looked like Nehwal had the game in the bag.

This was when Sindhu seemed to shift into another gear. She played two near-identical cross-court smashes, wrong-footing Nehwal both times. The rally that followed was a three-act thriller, with net battles interspersed with smashes. This time, however, Sindhu managed to return a body smash, setting up a winner to finally catch up. Nineteen all.

There was another dramatic pause, as the umpire admonished Nehwal for repeatedly wasting time after losing points. Sindhu complained about flash photography. Nehwal then hit one more body smash to set up game point—but she lost it by serving into the net. Sindhu let out a long cry of celebration, as if she had won the match. The crowd, on the other hand, was stunned into silence.

After a nervous net battle, Sindhu sent a clear shot into the back corner. She let out another scream, as well as a “Come on!” as she prepared to serve at match point. She was scowling. After a few tense exchanges at the net, Nehwal tried to push Sindhu back to the baseline. Sindhu answered with a better lob, followed by a delicate drop to Nehwal’s backhand. Scrambling to reach the drop, Nehwal left an opening, into which Sindhu shot an explosive smash that Nehwal could only watch, bringing the match to an end.

From 16–19 down, Sindhu had managed to win six points while giving away just one to get into the semifinals. The two players had put on a great advertisement for Indian badminton, but shared the most cursory of handshakes.

IN DECEMBER 2010, after the Indian team, under his coaching, failed to win any medals at the Asian Games in Guangzhou, Gopichand decided to take special interest in the then 15-year-old Sindhu’s development. Earlier that year, she had reached the quarterfinals of the World Junior Championships, won bronze at the Junior Asian Championship and silver at the Iran Fajr International Challenge. She then won four titles at the Smt Krishna Khaitan All India Junior Ranking Tournament, taking both the singles and doubles in the under-16 and under-19 categories. At the Sub-Junior Nationals in Hyderabad, she again won the under-16 singles and doubles titles, winning every game along the way. Gopichand, however, felt she had not dominated as much as he expected. “Sindhu barely managed to win Sub-Junior Nationals,” he recounted at a recent book launch. “I realised I was not really focussing much on her. I asked her to turn up at 4.15 am so I get an hour with her.” Ramana accompanied her to these pre-dawn sessions, even gathering the shuttlecocks that invariably piled up on court.

Earlier that year, Sindhu had been selected by the Olympic Gold Quest, an organisation founded by Prakash Padukone and the billiards player Geet Sethi to redress the funding deficit faced by Indian Olympians. They looked to identify the best future medal prospects early and provided them the money to access the kinds of resources only available to the world’s best. This targeted programme is emerging as a useful supplement to India’s meagre state funding for sports, even if its benefits are reaching only a limited number of athletes—71 at last count. It can justifiably claim success—five of the eight Indian medallists at the last two Olympics were supported by the OGQ. Being selected meant that the 15-year-old and her family no longer needed to worry about the expenses involved in the professional circuit—flight tickets, accommodation, food. “OGQ also helps me with my medical, nutrition and physiotherapy requirements,” she told Rediffin 2012. “Most importantly, OGQ moves with great speed in helping me quickly when I need anything related to my game. I am never hesitant to call them for any kind of help.”

Soon after securing OGQ support, Sindhu won her first international tournament, the Maldives International Challenge, in June 2011. This was soon followed by a win at the Indonesia International Challenge. In October, she participated in the Dutch Open at Almere, again reaching the final, where she lost to Yao Jie.

“I travelled alone, actually,” Sindhu told me. “I was 16. Obviously, it’s very far, so my parents were very worried.” The following week, she won the Swiss International at Bern; her parents’ anxiety was eased somewhat since there were other Indians taking part, though once she had left home, Sindhu managed to call her parents only after the tournament ended. The OGQ funding allowed her mother to travel with her for future tournaments, and she made it a point to call home every night whenever her parents could not accompany her.

She first drew major national and international attention when she beat the London Olympics gold medallist and world number two Li Xuerui in the quarterfinals of the China Masters two months after the games. When I asked her about her mindset going into that match, Sindhu said, “I just went normally. I thought, ‘Okay, fine, I’m playing against the Olympic champion. I don’t have anything to lose; anything that happens is fine.’ I just had to give my best, and I won.” Beating a top Chinese player at the age of 17 was a big deal, given the country’s decades of domination over the women’s game. At the time, Nehwal had faced Chinese opponents in 51 matches, winning only 18 of them, and China had seven of the world’s top ten women’s singles players.

Sindhu picked up a knee injury during the tournament, the consequence of a footwork problem that had its roots in her growth spurt during her teens. The injury hampered her attempt to defend the national title she had won in 2011 and kept her out of the World Junior Championship. By the turn of the year, however, on the back of a finals appearance in the Syed Modi International in December, she was among the top 20 in the world.

Sindhu would claim two more prize scalps in the 2013 World Championships at Guangzhou. Seeded tenth in the tournament following a victory at the Malaysia Open, she faced the Olympic silver medallist Wang Yihan, who beat Nehwal in the semifinals at London, in the third round. Taller than most Chinese players, Wang matched Sindhu inch for inch in height and reach, and was ranked second in the world at the time. Displaying great agility to withstand her barrage of attacking shots, Sindhu stunned Wang, and the world, winning 21–18, 23–21.

The next day, Sindhu pulled off another upset, beating the sixth seed and former world number one Wang Shixian 21–18, 21–16. She went on to lose to the eventual champion, Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand, in the semifinals, but had already made history by becoming the first Indian to finish on the podium in the women’s singles at the World Championships. The Arjuna Award she had predicted for herself soon followed, as did another national title, and victory at the Macau Open that year.

Key to her sensational victories was a renewed focus on her fitness. Six months before the World Championships, Gopichand had enlisted an old associate, Christopher Paul, to work on Sindhu’s leg and shoulder strength. A full team of physiotherapists, masseurs and coaches assigned her extensive training programmes; at one point, she was running almost 70 lengths of a football field a day to improve her endurance and mental toughness. She also kept in touch over Facebook and Skype with Shree Advani, a sport and performance psychologist whose younger brother Pankaj has to date won 16 world titles in snooker and billiards and was associated with the OGQ. When I spoke to Advani in July, he told me that, at the time, Sindhu seemed impassive when she won a point but would show her disappointment whenever she made a mistake. He asked her to do things the other way around, something that is evident in her on-court behaviour today.

But this was also when a troubling pattern began to emerge. Although Sindhu was consistently causing upsets, she was also consistently being upset by lesser-known players. Weeks after the Worlds, she surrendered meekly to 16-year-old qualifier Akane Yamaguchi at the Japan Open. Then, after losing to Nehwal in the final of the Syed Modi International, she lost to the unheralded Sun Yu of China both in the first round of the All-England as well as the semifinals of the Swiss Open. Wang Yihan and Shixian combined to shut her out of the next four tournaments she entered, each beating her twice, and though she put together another run to the semifinals of the 2014 World Championships—again losing to the eventual winner, Marin, to take bronze—she was knocked out in the second round of the Asian Games by world number 34 Bellaetrix Manuputty of Indonesia.

“There was not much consistency” in those years, Sindhu agreed. “I used to get very nervous during the match, when I would start making mistakes, losing the lead. I’ve worked on that, and I feel I’ve improved a lot now.”

Naik, however, believes she needs more time to put those doubts to bed. “I’ll still wait two seasons before calling it her purplest patch in consistency,” she told me, referring to Sindhu’s present form. “Her playing style is rough; she will be up and down. I don’t think I want to expect her to be another Saina in terms of consistency—to me, Sindhu will for the foreseeable future be the shock player at big tournaments. I don’t think Gopi puts a lot of store on her winning everything. He’ll prioritise the big medals.”

Despite her inconsistency, by beating both finalists from the London Olympics, Li Xuerui and Wang Yihan, on multiple occasions, Sindhu had thrown down the gauntlet for the 2016 Rio Olympics. But a stress fracture on her left foot in early 2015 put her qualification in jeopardy. She was out of action for six crucial weeks at the height of the season, missing five Super Series events in a row. She was ranked at number 13 at the time, with only 16 guaranteed spots on the basis of the world rankings, making it touch-and-go.

“It’s not like she was sitting at home,” her physiotherapist C Kiran said afterwards. “Gopi and me knew we didn’t want to waste time. You see, the other leg was fine, so was the upper body and the abs. We simply designed a way to improve her skills while one leg was still in a cast.” They ensured she was never out of training, and once back on two legs, she quickly set about securing qualification. “I played so many tournaments that year,” she told me, 23 of them in the course of the qualification process. Despite some lacklustre results, her first ever Super Series final appearance at the Denmark Open, followed by a third consecutive Macau Open win and victory in the 2016 Malaysia Masters, were enough to secure passage to Rio.

PRAKASH PADUKONE calls this the golden period of Indian badminton. “I don’t think there has been any other time better than this,” he said in a 2015 interview with The Hindu. “Historically, if you see, and this applies to most other sports, India had just one player at the top level at a particular point in time. Earlier, it was Nandu Natekar, followed by Suresh Goel, myself, Syed Modi and then Gopichand. This is the first time, maybe in the last five years, starting with the Commonwealth Games in 2010, that a batch of players are doing well, a good sign for the growth of the game. It shows the popularity of the game and depth of talent in the country.”

Srikanth Kidambi (left) and Sai Praneeth (centre) are among India’s highest-ranked men’s players. The two have won the last three Super Series events, with Praneeth taking the Singapore Open title in April and Srikanth taking the Indonesia and Australia Opens in June. HARSHA VADLAMANI FOR THE CARAVAN

Today, India has the highest number of representatives of any single country among the top 100 men’s singles players in the world, 14 at last count—which is three more than Indonesia, the next highest country, and twice as many as China. In the women’s singles category, India has seven players ranking in the top 100. Indians have won the men’s singles at the last three Super Series events, with Sai Praneeth winning the Singapore Open in April and Kidambi Srikanth winning at the Indonesia and Australia Opens in June. Earlier this year, the Indian team achieved its best ever result at the Sudirman Cup, reaching the quarterfinals, where it was defeated by China. India has also reached the semifinals of the last two Uber Cups.

Like Indian sport in general, badminton has benefitted from an infusion of money in recent years. The OGQ model has been imitated by other corporate foundations as well as the union government, which announced its Target Olympic Podium Scheme shortly before Rio. Sponsorship opportunities have increased, and the Premier Badminton League offers lucrative contracts to the top players for a month or so of action. A study by the UK-based sports consulting firm SMG Insight found that badminton now has the second highest participation of any sport in India, below only cricket, and the fourth-highest in terms of viewership, after cricket, tennis and football. Yonex’s Indian subsidiary claims that demand for racquets is growing by at least 20 percent every year; the sales share of more expensive racquets, favoured by more serious players, is also steadily growing. Academies have mushroomed in most major cities, although the quality of coaching and facilities varies drastically across them. A virtuous cycle, it seems, is whirring into action.

Over 17 million people in India watched Sindhu’s Olympic final against Spain’s Carolina Marin on television. It was the second-highest viewership for any sports final that year; only that of the Indian Premier League drew more eyeballs. HARSHA VADLAMANI

The efficiency of this cycle, however, remains to be seen. The growth in the sport has largely taken place within the private sector, which means coaching, equipment and facilities still remain out of reach for the majority of the country’s population. The SAI conducts coaching classes at concessionary rates, but these are mostly restricted to the big cities. Earlier this year, Goverdhan Reddy, the coach who convinced Ramana not to discontinue Sindhu’s training, started a crowdfunding campaign to support Vamsi Krishna, a promising juniors player. Vamsi’s father, Rajesh, had trained under Ganguly Prasad at the SAI centre in Hyderabad in the early 1990s, before he had to quit the game. He became a bus driver to support his family, but, determined to allow his children to pursue badminton, moved to Hyderabad in 2014 to work as a coach. Eleven-year-old Vamsi caught Reddy’s eye, and the coach took him under his wing. “Every month, even without the right diet,” read the appeal, “Vamsi needs Rs 20,000 for the hostel fees, sports equipment like racquets, shuttlecocks and shoes. His uncle contributes for some and the rest is paid by the coach and Rajesh. Vamsi urgently needs to up the ante so his coaching can keep up with his developing skills.” The campaign raised almost R2 lakh, which temporarily helped Krishna meet his expenses. Many other talented players, however, are not so lucky.

There is talk of reform, though. Himanta Biswa Sarma, the powerful Assam politician and convenor of the BJP-led North-East Democratic Alliance, was elected president of the BAI in April following the sudden death of his predecessor, Akhilesh Das Gupta. On 5 May, he held a conclave in Delhi in which he proposed expanding the game’s infrastructure. The association had established a committee, he announced, to standardise the model of the Gopichand Academy, and planned to open five new academies across the country by the end of the year. “Another issue is that of insurance,” Sarma said. “We want to have good insurance scheme for the players so that if a player gets injured and is out a long time it can be of some help.” After a meeting with top players, including Sindhu, he disbursed the Rs 1.07 crore that the association cumulatively owed them in prize money and cash incentives, in some cases going back to the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Sarma also spoke of mobilising an army of retired players “for the betterment of the game.” On 29 June, the association appointed a 32-member coaching panel for senior players and a 35-member one for juniors, made up of former players under Gopichand’s leadership. “If you look at the coaches,” BAI secretary Anup Narang told ESPN, “all of them belong to different parts of the country. So the intent is for them to nurture talent from their respective states and zones. … So far, talent from across the country was not really being spotted and nurtured and that’s what we are looking to change.”

All this will require a significant increase in sports expenditure; after all, despite having a youth population that is over 20 times larger than that of the United Kingdom, India’s annual sports budget is about a third that country’s. “Each medal costs the UK £5.5 million,” Abhinav Bindra, a gold medallist in shooting at Beijing and now the chairperson of the TOPS committee, tweeted during the Rio Olympics. “That’s the sort of investment needed. Let’s not expect much until we put systems in place at home.”

SINDHU'S PATH TO THE OLYMPICS FINAL was riddled with opponents who had troubled her in the past. In the first round, she made it past Michelle Li of Canada, a lower-ranked opponent who beat her in the semifinals of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. In the pre-quarterfinals, her opponent was Tai Tzu Ying, who had beaten her in four of their six previous encounters. Sindhu, who was seeded ninth, gave a dominant performance against Tai, keeping up intense pressure on the eighth seed to win 21–13, 21–15. This set up a quarterfinal against Wang Yihan. Wang also led Sindhu in their head-to-head record, and had beaten Nehwal at the London Olympics. She was ranked second in the world, though she was troubled by an injured back and had grown slower on the court with age. Sindhu’s improved fitness shone through—she outlasted the Chinese player to win a fast-paced tactical battle 22–20, 21–19 in just under an hour. She was now only one victory away from a medal.

Standing in her way was Nozomi Okuhara, the sixth seed from Japan, whom Sindhu had never beaten as a senior, despite being almost a foot taller. The two went neck-and-neck in the first game, with Sindhu prevailing 21-19. Though the second game seemed like it was also going to be close, from 10–10 Sindhu won eleven points in a row to stomp her way into the final—the first women’s singles final in 24 years that did not feature a Chinese player.

Her opponent was Spain’s Carolina Marin—the top seed and winner of the two previous World Championships. Marin’s ascent to greatness is one of badminton’s most extraordinary stories. She was spotted as a 13-year-old by Fernando Rivas, a young coach who harboured what he called a “healthy disrespect” for China’s preeminent position in the sport and wanted to overturn it. He had a degree in sports science, but had had limited success after he seriously took up badminton—a sport his parents had not even heard of—at school. After spending five years observing training methods in France, Germany and Holland, he joined the national federation’s coaching staff in 2005. Having struggled against most of his senior trainees during his time playing the game, and replacing a coach who had drilled his charges in the Chinese style, he had his work cut out.

Rivas sought to wean the Spanish federation off Chinese methods. He believed that the regimen in place, which emphasised physical training and facilitated a sort of Darwinian competition among players, with little sharing of information or scope for innovation, could only mass produce champions when you had the kind of talent pool at your disposal that China does. Instead, countries like Spain needed to help their players make the most of their talents. This meant identifying prospects at a young age, carefully managing their transition through the various plateaus of their development, adapting training methods to players’ individual needs rather than having them adapt to your training methods, developing close relations between coaches and players, involving them in discussions about their routine and technique, and working on tactics and psychology from a very young age. Like Gopichand, he struggled to get his contemporaries on board—but the next generation listened.

Marin, who had wanted to be a flamenco dancer when she grew up, chose to seriously pursue the sport at Rivas’s urging, moving to Madrid from her hometown of Huelva and even deferring college. In the absence of capable sparring partners for Marin, Rivas would often step in himself, his ambidexterity allowing him to simulate both left- and right-handed opponents—Marin herself is left-handed. He also made extensive use of sophisticated video analysis, tracking minute differences in technique throughout Marin’s development. Including her in dissecting the videos from an early age helped her thoroughly understand her game, enabling her to take independent decisions on court. The southpaw built her game around taking control of rallies and keeping her opponents perennially on the back foot. She soon stunned the badminton world by consistently beating the world’s best players. Now here she was, only the third European player—one of whom was born in Indonesia—to ever make the final of the women’s singles at the Olympics.

Despite putting up a brave fight, Sindhu was outclassed by Marin in the Olympic final. CLIVE BRUNSKILL/GETTY IMAGES

Back in Hyderabad, Sindhu’s parents, fellow trainees, friends and well-wishers gathered at the Gopichand Academy to watch live telecast of the match. “We have been going to the temple every day and even tomorrow we will,” her mother had said the previous day. “She will win with god’s grace.” Whether or not god chose to grace her, Sindhu’s guaranteed medal, along with Sakshi Malik’s bronze in the 58-kg freestyle wrestling event the night before, was already being celebrated as a salve to national pride.

It had been a dark fortnight. India had sent its largest and best-equipped Olympics contingent ever to Rio and was expecting to better its tally of six medals at the previous summer games. Instead, India had won only two medals, even as the news from Rio had been dominated by the usual stories of dysfunction in the governance of sport in the country. The Court of Arbitration for Sport had overturned a clean chit given by the National Anti-Doping Agency to the wrestler Narsingh Yadav, and banned him for four years. Vijay Goel, the sports minister, was found sneaking unaccredited friends into a VIP section in the stands. The rudeness of his entourage almost got his own accreditation revoked. He later misspelled the gymnast Dipa Karmakar’s name in a congratulatory tweet for her fourth-place finish, and wished the athlete Srabani Nanda luck in a tweet that had another athlete’s photo attached.

A delegation led by the Haryana sports minister Anil Vij spent its entire time in Rio sightseeing, not attending any events, at a cost of Rs 1 crore to the state exchequer. Karmakar’s physiotherapist, meanwhile, had not been allowed to travel with her because the SAI deemed it a wasteful expense. The athletics coach Nikolai Snesarev was detained for allegedly misbehaving with a nurse in the Games Village. Two of the medical staff accompanying the contingent, relatives of Indian Olympic Association officials, were found to be radiologists with no experience in sports medicine. At an Independence Day celebration in the Indian consulate, the athletes, who had skipped dinner at the Village to attend, were literally just given peanuts to eat.

Over 17 million people in India watched the final on television. It was the second-highest viewership for any sports final that year; only that of the Indian Premier League drew more eyeballs. In Spain, which has a much smaller population, 2.4 million people tuned in. Indians outnumbered Spaniards in the crowd, but both sides made considerable noise; the frequent “Jeetega bhai jeetega, India jeetega!” (India will win, brother) chants interspersed with “Ca-ro-li-na!” ones. Although Sindhu started strong, Marin’s quickness on court and resolve to scrap for every point—traits she picked up from her idol, that other Spanish left-handed champion, Rafael Nadal—soon put her ahead. Leading 3–2, she hit a devastating drop shot from the back of the court. As Sindhu bent to retrieve the shuttle, Marin was already at the net, ready to swat it away. Having won the point, she shrieked in celebration.

Inspired by early Nadal, Marin’s shrieks not only provide an outlet for the tension, but are also a tool to intimidate opponents. “It gives me power and confidence on court,” she told ESPN in January this year. “I think it’s a way for me of telling opponents that they don’t stand a chance against me.” Sindhu told me that she was well prepared for Marin’s aggression. “Last year, I was often playing against her. I knew that she was going to shout; she was not going to leave me. So even I played in that vein.”

Marin went into the break with a five-point advantage. Sindhu’s comeback, beginning soon after the interval, was fortuitous. She won back serve after an unforced error, and won the next point because Marin, who had done everything right to set up a winner, walked into the net before the shuttle hit the ground. After a string of errors by either side, Marin lost another point because her racquet was not pointing downwards as she prepared to serve. She then hit her return into the net to see her lead cut to one. A body smash kept Sindhu at bay, but she kept at Marin’s heels through a 53-shot rally until the Spaniard hit the shuttle long. Marin managed to win the two following points, however, and was suddenly closing in on the first game, up 19–16.

And then she imploded. She gave away the first of the five points she went on to lose in a row by succumbing to pressure at the net. Then, trying to play a net shot, she suddenly hesitated, transferring no force to the shuttle. A lift went long, a shot hit the net, and Sindhu reached game point. In the midst of the next rally, Marin tried to kill a budding net battle by leaping and hitting what seemed to be the perfect passing shot. Sindhu pivoted, reached the shuttle and lobbed it back. Forced to get around its path in order to hit it with her forehand, Marin’s response failed to cross the net. Screaming almost as often and intensely as the world number one, Sindhu had somehow managed to win the first game of the Olympic final with hardly a winner to her name.

As Gopichand discussed strategy with Sindhu, Rivas gave Marin an impassioned speech, repeatedly pointing at her in emphasis. He had spoken, he said afterwards, “certain words which always work like magic,” though he refused to reveal what he had told her. Whatever it was, it made an immediate impact. Before Sindhu knew what hit her, she was going into the mid-game interval trailing 2–11. Though Sindhu tried to keep up after that, Marin managed to maintain her lead, taking the score to 11–19. With two drop shots, Marin sealed the game.

Despite putting up a brave fight, Sindhu was outclassed by Marin in the Olympic final. MARCELO DEL POZO/REUTERS

Marin carried her momentum into the decider, and soon opened up a 6–1 lead. Sindhu once again began the arduous task of catching up, with greater success than in either of the two previous games; after a long, testing rally in which the players seemed to cover every square inch of the court, Sindhu prevailed to equalise at 10–10. A long pause ensued, as both players snuck in a drink of water just before the break and then squabbled over whether to change the shuttle. The Indian fans were going wild. They were silenced once Sindhu hit a shot long to trail at the interval, but the Spaniards were not cheering either. Tracking back to receive the shot, Marin had managed to jar her ankle.

It did not trouble her too much, however, and she put in another blitz, winning five of the next seven points. It proved a decisive advantage. Sindhu pulled back a couple of points as nerves took hold of the world champion, but then lost four points in a row, giving Marin six championship points at 20–14. Sindhu managed to save one, and an intense rally followed, in which each player moved the other from corner to corner. Sindhu finally caved, as a smash to her backhand sealed her fate, with the score 21–19, 12–21, 15–21. Despite putting up a brave fight, she had been outclassed. The only time she had led were the final two points of the first game. “I always aimed for gold, obviously,” Sindhu told me when I asked her whether she had been content with a silver medal. “Overall, it was a good match. It’s just that I missed out. It was her day.”

After the tournament, Gopichand lifted the severe restrictions that he had placed on Sindhu during her training period. “Sindhu did not have her phone during the last three months,” he told the Press Trust of India. “The first thing is I would return her phone. The second thing, after coming here for last 12-13 days, I had deprived her from having sweet curd, which she likes most. I also stopped her from eating ice-cream. Now she can eat whatever she wants.” The same went for Marin; one of her first stops on leaving the stadium was an ice-cream parlour. Throughout the flight home, Sindhu was glued to her phone, going through the deluge of text messages that had come her way.

The Olympics performance brought Sindhu the kind of riches only cricketers can expect in India. A month after the Olympics, she signed a three-year deal with the sports-management company Baseline Ventures that could be worth as much as Rs 50 crore after factoring in performance bonuses. “I can’t give a figure now,” Tuhin Mishra, the managing director of Baseline, said at the time, “but given the response that we are getting and the sponsors we have on board, Sindhu’s will be the best deal that a non-cricket star can get.” By the end of the year, she had signed six endorsement deals worth Rs 7.5 crore. She charges more per day for shooting advertisements than any other sports personality, barring the Indian cricket captain, Virat Kohli. Sindhu also raked in cash rewards to the tune of Rs 13 crore from central, state and private bodies in the aftermath of her Olympic medal. In June, she served as a brand ambassador in the media campaign accompanying the rollout of the Goods and Services Tax.

In May, during a special session of the state assembly to pass the GST bill, the Andhra Pradesh government amended its Public Services Commission Act to allow Sindhu to be directly appointed a deputy collector. It also gave her Rs 3 crore and a house. The Telangana government also gave her Rs 5 crore and a 1,000-square-yard residential plot.

Though Sindhu’s father still refers to her as “the child,” the people around her have begun to treat her as a responsible adult. Gopichand no longer needs to keep constant tabs on her diet; she still devours biryani when she can, but keeps a close watch on her weight, making sure it does not exceed 66 kilograms, and has almost entirely cut sweets out of her diet. And he need not confiscate her phone either. “I wanted to prove that I can win even with my phone,” she said. “So when I won the China Open, I told Gopi sir, ‘Did you see?’ I just said ‘Did you see?’ and he knew what I was talking about.”

SINCE THE OLYMPICS, the expectations have lain heavy on Sindhu. Could she indeed reach that world-number-one position, and demonstrate that she was a contender for gold at Tokyo? Could she beat the best on the biggest stages? She won the China Open last year, but, in that tournament, had not faced either Tai or Marin, both of whom had been knocked out in earlier rounds. Reaching the final of the India Open provided Sindhu an opportunity to at least partially answer these questions: the other finalist was her nemesis at Rio, Carolina Marin.

As an acknowledgement of the scale of the occasion, the women’s singles match was scheduled last, after all the other finals. The arena was packed, with standing room only—and even standing involved putting up with a constant stream of complaints from those seated behind you as they struggled to see what was happening on court.

The two competitors for the men’s singles final entered the arena to the opening bars of ‘Eye of the Tiger,’ and the crowd went wild. Viktor Axelsen, like a number of top players who have become familiar to Indian audiences through the PBL, had built up quite a fan following, and had the crowd firmly behind him as he made quick work of Chou Tien Chen of Chinese Taipei. As he won, he fell to his knees to thundering cheers. After shaking hands with his opponent and the match officials, he saluted the crowd on the far side by raising his racquet at them. He turned towards our side of the court and chucked it in a high parabola. Possessed by a childhood fear of projectiles that is partly responsible for my dismal performance in all ball sports, I ducked out of the way. This did not fully protect me; a nearby spectator dived for it and his knee landed on my shoulder blade.

The men’s doubles final followed, and was won by the Indonesian pair of Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo and Marcus Fernaldi Gideon. A chant of “Sindhu! Sindhu!” began even before the two teams had left centre court. Then, a group of scantily clad women with wings made of peacock feathers began dancing to ‘Jai Ho’ from Slumdog Millionaire. The crowd erupted in cheers as the women were joined by matadors waving large tricolours.

Sindhu and Marin made their entrance and began warming up. Cheers drowned out the umpire’s introductions. For the first time in the tournament, Gopichand joined Handoyo at courtside, and was also greeted with an ovation.

The crowd sustained its roar as the game began, and even Marin’s scream as she won the first point was barely audible. As Sindhu went on to win the next six points, the decibel level steadily rose. At 6–2, the crowd was subdued somewhat by a Marin winner. It started a “Sindhu!” chant during the next rally in defiance, but another winner from Marin shut it up. After the Spaniard held her nerve to prevail in a lengthy net battle, the crowd cheered and banged their noisemakers in appreciation—Marin had also been a crowd favourite throughout the tournament.

Unlike in the final at Rio, it was Sindhu who was dictating the course of play. Marin, who suffered a thigh injury late last year that ended her 36-week run as world number one, was kept on the move, which robbed her of her usual split-second advantage on every shot. The momentum kept switching between the two players as they engaged in tense tactical battles. Neither player was pulling out too many smashes; this was almost touch play. As Sindhu went into the break leading 11–9, Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’ began playing. The crowd matched the beat with their noisemakers.

In March this year, Sindhu pulled off one of the biggest victories of her career, beating her nemesis Marin 21–19, 21–16 in 47 minutes, at the India Open finals in Delhi. KAMAL KISHORE/PTI

The fluctuation of fortunes continued after the interval, with both players trading points until Marin clawed her way back to equalise at 16 all. Then, at 19 all, Marin tried to cut short the rally, going for a winner that ended up wide. At game point, Sindhu abruptly changed the direction of play to open up an opportunity to smash, and took it. The first game had taken 22 minutes, just seven fewer than the entire men’s doubles final.

It was the same first-game score as in Rio, but Sindhu looked like a different player, especially at the net. She was thoroughly in control, winning points on her own rather than trying to draw out errors. And there was no sign of an early second-game collapse. Sindhu came out of the blocks in full attack mode, racking up point after point. Skilful manoeuvring of a spinning net shot put her ahead by three; sharp reflexes made it 4–0. A sliced drop shot put Marin on the board, and constant pressure over a long rally halved the deficit, but Sindhu took back serve with a body smash. The two began trading points as Marin began to increase her tempo, but Sindhu kept her nose ahead. From 8–7 up, she won three points in a row to take a four-point advantage into the break.

Marin tried to pull things back, but Sindhu kept regaining the lead. At 18–14, she hit a winner from the front court to pull within two points of victory. Gopichand, whose face had remained impassive throughout the match, allowed himself a fist pump. Both players’ accuracy slipped under the tense atmosphere, and after a series of unforced errors, Marin knocked the shuttle into the net to lose 19–21, 16–21 in 47 minutes.

Sindhu let out a cry of celebration, and the matadors ran around the court, waving their tricolours. Everyone in the stadium rose to their feet. It was a massive victory for Sindhu, one that made her the second-ranked badminton player in the world. She was close.