There's a running joke in badminton circles: at Rio Olympics, everyone prepared for Saina Nehwal. But PV Sindhu was the out-of-syllabus question.
Pullela Gopichand grins as this anecdote comes up. But he soon gets serious.
"At the last Olympics, nobody cared about Sindhu. This time around, it's going to be a challenge. She's going to be the main question in the test! People are going to be prepared for her. So we need to be smarter," says Gopichand.
The chief coach of the Indian badminton team has a few ideas to tweak Sindhu's game in line for Tokyo Olympics.
"I have some plans for her, but we need some time for that. In one week or five days, we cannot implement those changes. From April to July next year we'll have that option,"
Time, as Gopichand has repeatedly pointed out in the last few months, is in short supply for Indian badminton players. With the BWF's 'Top Committed Player' obligations making it mandatory for top players to compete in a certain number of tournaments each year, tournaments have come at a breakneck pace for shuttlers.
"With the way the world badminton calendar is, players are playing continuously. Even if you're injured or ill, you end up having to play those mandatory tournaments. Then when you start losing, it becomes a freefall," says Gopichand.
"If you look at events after the World Championships in August, you'll see top shuttlers played in China and Korea a few days later in back-to-back tournaments. Indian players came back, had barely reached home and a few days later they were playing in Denmark and France in another set of back-to-back tournaments. They came back for barely a week from there, had maybe five days of rest and went to play again at China and now they're in Hong Kong. Then they'll play one more tournament in Korea. So from September to November, these players are playing seven-eight tournaments. That's why you see a Carolina Marin (who quit mid-match in her opener at the Fozhou China Open) or a Tai Tzu Ying retiring mid-match (at the Fozhou China Open in the semis). That's why you've seen Kento Momota pulling out of the Hong Kong Open today. If you look at the results from the start of the year to now, the champions' names keep changing.
"But given the Olympic qualification that's looming, players are not backing out as well. They're just trying to manage. It's not a great scenario to be in," says Gopichand, who is in Mumbai for the IDBI Federal Life Insurance's 'Football Mania' project.
Among those struggling to cope with the breakneck speed of tournaments after the World Championships is the reigning champion Sindhu.
After winning the prestigious tournament in Basel on 25 August, Sindhu played at the China Open which ran from 17-22 September (where she lost in the Round of 16 to Pornpawee Chochuwong in three games after winning the first game 21-12). She then competed at the Korea Open from 24-29 September, where she lost in the Round of 32 to Beiwen Zhang in three games after winning the first 21-7). Her next stops were the Denmark Open from 15-20 October, where she lost to South Korea's upcoming star An Se Young in straight games; the French Open from 22-27 October, where she made it to the quarters before losing to Tai Tzu Ying in three feisty games); and the Fuzhou China Open from 5-10 November, where she lost to unheralded Pai Yu Po, ranked 42, in three games.
On being asked if he felt any concern at Sindhu's run of results after winning the gold at the Basel World Championships, Gopichand is nonchalant.
"If you look at last year's results, be it the China Open or Denmark Open or Hong Kong Open or French Open, she didn't have great results. But then she ended the year with a title at the World Tour Finals, where she beat all of the top players. The conditions in which these tournaments are played over the years have not really suited her. You add to that the jet lag she has had to counter, and the additional pressure of being World Champion, it becomes difficult, especially if you are not coming out of a good result. Over the years, she's had bad losses. But she's also been one of our most consistent players when it comes to big tournaments. It's not one or two years, it's been the past six years."
On being asked what Sindhu needs to do to arrest this slump, Gopichand says, "I think her game needs to be a lot more all-round. I think there needs to be more patience. She makes mistakes in the end game. More importantly, she needs to learn how to play all kinds of games. That's been a struggle. She's improved drastically over the years from where she started out. The earlier Sindhu was very different. Now she's a world champion and so she's a marked player. People are prepared to face her."
Over the past few months, Gopichand has also been vocal about the need for India to have more coaches to accompany India's top players, besides also looking at the next crop of shuttlers. His own way of juggling the two responsibilities is to travel with the top stars in years that have the Olympics and the Asian Games/Commonwealth Games while staying at the Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad in the years between these marquee tournaments.
Badminton Association of India had hired four foreign coaches Park Tae Sang and Kim Ji Hyun for singles and Flandy Limpele and Namrih Suroto for doubles. Kim, however, left mid-way earlier this year to tend to her husband, who had suffered a stroke. This has left a huge vacuum in India's coaching infrastructure.
"We've always struggled with the lack of coaches. The numbers need to go up. The quality of coaches needs to go up. That's an area which is a big concern. To have coaches dedicatedly with some of our top players is necessary. There are no easy-fix solutions especially in the year prior to the Olympics. There won't be coaches capable enough who are without a job at this stage before the Olympics. It's going to be tough. But yes, I will start travelling with the players next year," he says.