New Delhi: PV Sindhu walked into the room with a beaming smile and ready acceptance of a fact that is fast threatening to become her moniker. A few freebies later, the elephant in the room duly arrived. World Championships, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, Thailand Open, India Open, Nationals... surely, a silver medal is worth an applause, but there comes a stage in an athlete's career when finishing second best becomes a mocking admission of guilt. Sindhu has been through it.
"It was still a good year," she says, proud of her podium counts, before admitting that the reasons for her stumbles are not mental, but technical.
"I have been reaching the finals and losing a lot, so obviously I have been thinking about it a lot. I am happy with my performance, but suddenly, in finals, I don't know what happens," said Sindhu.
"The problem was not mental, it was technical. Mentally, I think I was perfectly alright and giving my 100 percent, but it was just the strokes that went wrong. This year, I have worked a lot on my strokes," she added.
Her luck changed at the BWF World Tour Finals in Dubai in December last year, when she finally crossed the final hurdle. Her opponent: Nozomi Okuhara. If you follow badminton, you'll get the twisted irony. It was her excruciating loss to the Japanese shuttler at the World Championships final in Glasgow, 2017, that first started the chatter about her tendency to 'choke'. Evidently, winning the Dubai event meant much more to Sindhu than becoming the first Indian to reach where none has been ever before; it reaffirmed her faith in herself.
Reflecting on her title, she said, "I just thought at the World Tour Finals that this is probably my ninth or 10th final and I was like, what's going on? I knew I had to change something, or maybe stick to something...just not lose. I decided I am not going to lose and I gave my 200 per cent and won. I was so happy after the match. I was very much focussed on the thought that I am not going to repeat my mistakes again and again." You are pardoned to take those words for a starry-eyed youngster who has just had her first taste of success. That's what consecutive silvers do to you.
Come Tuesday, and top-seeded Sindhu will lead India's charge at the latest edition of India Open in the Capital's Indira Gandhi (IG) Indoor Stadium. A winner at the 2017 edition, she lost the final (sigh!) last year to American Beiwen Zhang.
"It didn't take too long for me to get out of that setback (losing the India Open final in 2018), because it was anybody's game at that point. I lost 22-20 in the third game. I was trailing, but came into the lead, and still lost. Immediately after that, we had a mixed team event to play, so I didn't have time to feel bad. I had a good tournament, but it was not my day in the final," she remembered.
World No 2 Chen Yufei's last-minute withdrawal has certainly taken some sheen off the event, but Sindhu is not willing to drop her guard, neither is she perturbed at the prospect of pressure that comes with being a top seed on the home turf.
"There's no pressure. In fact, the home crowd is always a good sign. I would take that support as an advantage and move forward on a positive note. It is definitely a very important tournament for me. Even though some people have withdrawn, I must say it won't be easy. I think we have to give our best," she said.
"Every player has their unique strokes and techniques, so its not that easy even to play against a lower-ranked player. They watch our matches too, and they work on our mistakes. For me, every point and every opponent is important," added Sindhu.
The absence of Yufei and Saina Nehwal provides an excellent opportunity to Sindhu to go deep in the tournament, though the presence of Thailand's Ratchanok Intanon and China's Beiwen Zhang will keep the 23-year-old on her toes.
"I think there are a couple of dangerous players. Chen Yufei has withdrawn and even Saina isn't playing, but Ratchanok is there, so is Beiwen Zhang who won the last time. We play against each other a lot, but every time it is a different game. He Bingjiao is also a very good player. She is deceptive, and she is a leftie, so playing against her is never easy. I will have to be ready against her and she is one of the dangerous players," she said.
Sindhu's start to 2019 has been far from ideal. A quarter-final loss to familiar foe Carlina Marin at the Indonesia Open was followed by a first-round ouster at the All England Championships to South Korea's Sung Ji-hyun, which means momentum will not exactly be on her side when she takes the court in her opening round clash against compatriot Mugdha Agrey.
"Even though it has not been a very good start to 2019, I am happy just going by the way I am practicing and getting better. Winning and losing are part of the game, and as long as I am giving my 100 per cent, I am fine," she concluded.