What's to blame for PV Sindhu's freefall after last year's Basel World Championships? Predictability

Shantanu Srivastava

New Delhi: 2019 marked a seminal moment in the country's badminton history as PV Sindhu became the first Indian to win the World Championships crown, decimating Japan's Nozomi Okuhara in a one-sided final. Enough has been written and said on Sindhu's form thereafter €" she is yet to win a tournament since and has reached quarter-finals only thrice in 10 competitions post her date with destiny last August.

Despite the piling early exits, it was believed that the blips and slips did not warrant much heartache. Many believed that the shuttler was perhaps saving her best for the biggest stage €" the now-deferred Tokyo Olympics €" by not unfurling her 'A' game in all competitions. There were also genuine concerns over cramped schedules and BWF's mandate of Top Committed Players appearing in a minimum of 12 events per year.

PV Sindhu's historic triumph at World Championships was followed by a host of early exits. File image.

PV Sindhu's historic triumph at World Championships was followed by a host of early exits. File image.

These were, of course, legitimate reasons to begin with, but none of it could sufficiently and succinctly explain Sindhu's freefall after that remarkable evening in Basel. The answers, perhaps, lie in a melange of these external factors as well as a clutch of facets intrinsic to Sindhu's game.

For a tall and attacking player like Sindhu, a searing smash becomes an automatic ammunition of choice. It is, what they call, her bread and butter shot. Powered by her sculpted deltoids, a Sindhu smash whistles to the far corner like a laser-guided missile, or when the mood hits her, goes for the opponent's midriff. Last year though, the missiles were returned with alarming regularity, especially from certain players who seem to have guessed their trajectory and target in advance.

Given her height, Sindhu's court coverage is quite expansive. Like all attacking players, she prefers to hang back a little and create an opportunity to hit deep, booming returns. The problem arises when opponents engage her in a long rally and trick her into opening up her frontcourt before employing the killer blow: a tantalising crosscourt slow drop that she struggles to reach.

Retrieving machines such as Tai Tzu Ying and Okuhara, at the forefront of neutralising Sindhu's attacking game, understand that the Indian is almost impossible to stop once she finds her rhythm. The idea then is to throw her off her game by inducing her in longer rallies that push her further back before catching her at the net.

Former national champion Aparna Popat believes that while Sindhu's strengths can be put to better use from the back of the court, her decision to come forward or stay back is a delicate "trade-off" that the shuttler needs to perfect against tricky opponents.

"Not all players can play a very good slow drop. It will be against certain opponents that could be a trade-off sometimes, but then, that trade-off can be countered if she somehow anticipates the slow drops. It's all a percentage game. How many times would you get under a shuttle and return a hard smash versus how many times you are conceding on a drop. These are all strategic decisions and planning," she told Firstpost.

"Yes, these crosscourt drops have been a problem," agreed former national champion and coach Vimal Kumar.

"Tai Tzu, in particular, has troubled both Saina and Sindhu with that, and it is a very, very, deceptive shot. She needs to practice a lot against that shot and get used to it. Good players employ this stroke after a good rally; that's where they catch them. That has to be simulated during training sessions. She needs to be engaged in long rallies in practice and induced into countering that slow drop when she is in the backcourt. The people feeding her, her sparring partners have to work out sequences specific to such issues. It is a very tough and tricky drop to handle and they are catching a number of players with that, but if she practices well, it shouldn't be a problem," Vimal, who has coached the likes of Saina Nehwal and Parupalli Kashyap, said.

Sindhu's trusted weapon, smash, is being pre-empted by skilful players, leading to fewer winners and longer rallies. File Image

Sindhu's smashes are being pre-empted by skillful players, leading to fewer winners and longer rallies. File Image

Then, there's the execution of the smash itself. Popat believes there are too many variables that dictate its efficiency, and in Sindhu's case, the reduced potency of her smashes may be a function of her reaching late under the shuttle or repeating her strokes far too often.

"If you are slightly late under the shuttle, your smash will not be as effective. Secondly, your choices of smash or variations will reduce. There are too many moving parts that dictate the ultimate result. Is she going late under the shuttle, or is she playing the same stroke over and over again, or is her strategy has become readable and obvious, or she is just not getting enough power in her smashes? There could be any reason behind this," she opined.

There's also the factor of predictability. Sindhu's relentless high-tempo strokeplay, despite setting the pace of the match, makes her a bit unidimensional. This works wonderfully against opponents who she could steamroll from the very beginning, but the taxing nature of this ploy and Sindhu's relative inability to break or slow down the rhythm makes her game open to second-guessing, making her vulnerable against fitter and grittier opponents.

Vimal insists that the problem lies in Sindhu's lack of variations and deception, and the 24-year-old, Vimal believes, should use her wrist a lot more to wrong-foot her opponents.

"She has improved her net game a lot over the years, but now I feel she needs to bring a little deception in her strokes and also the ability to use her wrist a lot more. Players have started to read her more, and I am sure she is aware of that. She needs specific skill training to add some variety in her game.

"She needs to use her wrist more because in women's singles, the shuttle is a little slow these days and wristy shots can unsettle a lot of players. At the moment, players know either she will hit a half smash or a slice, which is where a bit of wrist play can come in handy. She can learn to play those tricky half smashes using her wrists and the same way she can use her punch to hit the shuttle long without sending it out. These variations and techniques are the ones that she needs to practice quite a bit," Vimal said.

Sindhu's defence, despite showing better reliability over the years, still has some room for improvement. When confronted with body smashes, her defensive reflex is a block and pretty much nothing else. This predictability, Vimal advises, can be tackled with rigourous practice.

"She can bring in some variation in her defence, in the way she receives a smash. She should be able to drive back as well as hit a cross while returning body smashes. Currently, she predictably blocks the body smashes. These call for specific stroke routine sessions to develop muscle memory and I am sure once she returns to on-court practice, she and her team will look into it," he explained.

While chief national coach Pullela Gopichand agreed that Sindhu's strengths and weaknesses are being increasingly dissected by her opponents, he assured that plans are afoot to add a few more dimensions to her overall game.

"I wouldn't believe that she has plateaued; there could be a host of reasons for her dip in form but I think you can always be positive that she'll come back with a strong result, come the big tournaments.

"The whole game is about each opponent finding your weakness and obviously if opponents are able to negate your biggest weapon, they'll have an upper hand. Clearly, girls' defences have gone stronger and people have read her better and it is time to come up with another plan. We are working on some fundamentals of her game, but these things will take time (to show results)," he said.

Technical overhaul and loss of form aside, there is another telling statistic that demands attention. Post her Basel glory, the Hyderabad-based shuttler has played 10 three-game matches, and quite incredibly, lost nine of them; the lone victory came against Japan's Aya Ohori, ranked 12 places below her. Sindhu's win-loss record in three-game matches in 2019 (post-Basel) reads: Played 7, Lost 7. These are staggering numbers that, from afar, point towards sagging fitness as much as they indicate a tendency to combust under pressure.

"These are some stats," said a surprised Popat. "I am sure her team must have looked at these results and they would be knowing where to push. It's not always that you slack off in the third game, sometimes the energy may start dropping by the end of the second game, or after five points in the third game.

"Sometimes, from outside, you feel she can still push, but she doesn't. Sometimes you feel she has mentally resigned before the match gets over. So there could be many reasons. But if you can't last three games at that level, then it will be very, very difficult. To have good endurance and physical fitness is very basic, especially if you look at the way sport has evolved over the last decade or so. If she is running out of steam, it could also be because she is trying something new or there may be a strategic error somewhere. But all said, she definitely has to catch up with the fitness levels of her major opponents."

Scathing as that assessment may sound, it is extremely surprising to comprehend the possible drop in Sindhu's fitness. Her transformation began in the months leading up to Rio Olympics and has been an evergrowing exercise, making her among the hardest hitters on the circuit. A year after her Olympic silver, she won a memorable 73-shot rally against Okuhara in the second game of their epic World Championships final. While players understandably tend to monitor their intensity given the schedule and burn-out factors, the fact that Sindhu struggled to win 35-40-shot rallies last year defies all possible explanations.

Vimal, though, considers it a strategic failure more than a fitness concern. "I don't think that (fitness) is an issue, but she must vary her pace. She must understand that her opponents are also using different strategies against her, so that needs to be countered. As far as third-game losses are concerned, I don't think they are because of fitness. They could be due to temperament and technique. She took some time to get used to her playing gear and shoes, then her coach left, which means a lot of ideas would have changed. All that adds up."

Gopichand, who oversees at least 11 workout sessions per week during lockdown with national players, impressed upon the need to return to basics. "There were a lot of things happening...too many tournaments. I think we should not forget the basics: Eat well, sleep well, train hard. There are no shortcuts, neither can you rush through a problem." However, with no clarity over the resumption of skill training yet, World No 7 Sindhu's reinvention may have to wait a bit more.

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