PV Sindhu fought hard. Fought like we have come to expect from the Indian badminton queen. She was 9-18 down in the opening game which looked like a foregone conclusion but was not to be as the Indian shuttler bounced back with her smashes and deceptive returns to win the game and later the match 21-19, 21-19 against China's He Bingjiao in the BWF World Tour Finals 2019.
It was an emotional roller-coaster ride for her fans and Sindhu the athlete. What else has been an emotional roller-coaster is the 2019 badminton season for Sindhu and her fans. Sindhu's hard-fought heist against Bingjiao came a match late, after her elimination from the World Tour Finals. Drawn in a relatively the easier group of the tournament, the Hyderabad shuttler blew a game lead in both of her first two matches against Akane Yamaguchi and Chen Yufei respectively to get eliminated from the tournament. A tournament where she was the defending champion. Where in 2018 she scripted history by becoming the first Indian to win the season finale.
In 2019, Sindhu outlived the expectations and went on to capture the World Championships. Once again, the first Indian to do so. Apart from being an historic achievement, it must have been a moment of utmost satisfaction for the 24-year-old who was dubbed the 'perennial bridesmaid' by critics and large part of the media. However, things have only gone south since then.
The five tournaments succeeding the World Championships, before the season finale, brought two opening round and same number of second round exits. There was also a rare quarter-finals appearance. In fact, if one over looks the Worlds gold, then 2019 looks nothing short of a disaster for Sindhu. With zero World Tour titles in 2019, it's officially the worst season for the player in the last four years " since 2016 when she won the Olympics silver medal at Rio to become the toast of the nation. In fact, in 2016 she also won two other tournaments. Adding three titles in the World Tour in 2017 and though she had none in 2018, Sindhu won the World Tour finals and grabbed runner-up medals at World Championships, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games. Compared to all that, 2019 looks grim. The sharp slide since historic World Championships triumph is even more worrying.
Why is it worrying?
The drop in form would not have been a major worry had the Tokyo Olympics not been this close. After winning silver in the previous edition and topping it up with World Championships gold, the top prize at Tokyo is a natural expectation, especially with other Indian shuttlers falling way behind in the race.
And Sindhu has always come good at the big tournaments. Her past record in these tournaments was a major factor behind the optimism for a good run in the World Tour Finals. She has earned this reputation of the kid we all envied in our school, one who spent all the evening in the playground and yet somehow topped the final exams. Sindhu, despite her lack of other World Tour titles, never forgets to add World Tour Finals or World Championships medals. In 2017, she was the runner-up at the season finale before winning it in 2018. Silver, silver, gold is how her record at World Championships reads since 2017. And while she also won a gold in 2019, her failure to shrug off the streak of poor results in the ongoing tournament coupled with the steep slum in form points towards a larger malaise.
Being world champion puts you under the scanner like never before and it won't be a surprise if top players would have dissected every part of her game to get better off her. Though her recent performances highlight that Sindhu has not made the necessary changes to the game to stay ahead of the competition. It was a refreshing aggressive approach that helped Sindhu become the world champion, but at Guangzhou, despite starting positively and taking comfortable leads, errors crept into her game and opened the gateways for her opponents to make comeback as they later went onto win.
What is the problem?
That's a million dollar question, isn't it? India's chief badminton coach Pullela Gopichand has often sighted BWF's hectic scheduling as the reason behind Sindhu's loss of form but the number don't support the trainer's arguments. Among the eight women's singles participants from season finale, only Tai Tzu Ying and Chen Yufei had played lesser World Tour events than Sindhu. Yufei, in fact, played in 13 tournaments as compared to Sindhu's 14 but accounted for six titles. Sindhu trained for over two weeks before the tournament and yet failed to find the top gear.
However, let's not ignore the fact that Sindhu isn't the fittest of the players going around and lacks stamina for long duels. Hence, it becomes highly imperative for her to start off matches aggressively and maintain the lead till the end, to avoid being stretched through the game and being punished.
Another factor that must have played a major role behind Sindhu's streak of dismal results is the departure of Kim Ji Hyun. The South Korean coach left after Sindhu's World Championships win and the Indian shuttler has not been the same since then. We saw a similar downfall amongst men's singles players when Mulyo Handoyo departed in 2017. Sindhu has been training with Park Tae Sang after Ji Hyun left.
With no immediate tournament impending, Sindhu is poised to stay away from competitive courts for a couple of weeks. This will help to take the focus away from her as she prepares for the Premier Badminton League which gets underway in January next year. Sindhu is far too good a player to let this poor form last for long. And this free time should serve as the perfect platform for Sindhu and her coach to work on her game. It was a spike in mental edge and aggressive playstyle that propelled Sindhu to her first World Championships gold and the focus should be on regaining the same as she starts building towards that gold medal at Tokyo.