When Michael Phelps’ elder sister Hillary visited India in 2015, she had spoken about how the childhood coach of the world’s most decorated swimmer had predicted that the boy would qualify for his first Olympics in 2004, make a mark in 2008 and be at his peak in 2012. But he managed to reach all those landmarks four years earlier.

A similar prediction was being made for PV Sindhu during the same period as 2012 London Olympics bronze medallist Saina Nehwal was still the top star of Indian badminton. Experts felt that the trip to Rio Olympics was the perfect exposure opportunity for the understudy before she could challenge for a medal four years later.

Despite winning back-to-back World Championships bronze medals in 2013 and 2014, Sindhu wasn’t considered to be a top contender for 2016 either and her indifferent form in the run-up to the Games was enough to make her one of the underdogs.

In fact, after her first-round loss in the Australian Open in June 2016, coach Pullela Gopichand was so worried that he put Sindhu on a strict fitness routine, took away her mobile phone, made her shout her guts out in front of the entire academy group to try and push her out of the comfort zone. At the Olympic Village in Rio, she wasn’t allowed to venture out of her room either so that she could maintain focus.

The hard work paid off and Sindhu delivered, winning the silver medal in her first appearance in the quadrennial event.

In 2021, Sindhu is five years older and a veteran with a mind of her own. She is now a towering figure in Indian sports who was tied 13th on the Forbes list of highest-paid female athletes in 2019 and will head to the Tokyo Olympics as the defending world champion; perhaps the player to beat in the absence of Rio Olympics gold medallist Carolina Marin.

The 26-year-old is still inconsistent on the BWF tour but has found ways to be at her best in the major tournaments that matter. She has reached the finals of all the three world championships since 2016, winning one, and also clinched the silver medal at the 2018 Asian Games to add to that aura around her.

Big changes

A lot has changed behind the scenes too and that has been the crux of her preparation for the Tokyo Games.

For Rio 2016, Project Sindhu was planned and executed by her coach and mentor Gopichand with her parents PV Ramanna and mother P Vijaya playing the supporting cast.

The arrival of Indonesian Mulyo Handoyo at the start of 2017 meant that Gopichand, for the first time, started sharing the planning responsibilities and handed over the execution part to the coach of former Olympic and world champion Taufik Hidayat and his assistant Hariawan.

The duo worked on building on-court endurance of all the Indian players with longer and more intense training sessions and the results were for all to see in the same year when Sindhu first made it to the World Championship final but ended up on the losing side in the epic 110-minute battle against Nozomi Okuhara.

Sindhu had also started building her own support team with a trainer from Suchitra academy, situated a good 40 kilometers away from Gachibowli. And the results, in terms of her improved fitness and agility, were encouraging.

Handoyo left soon after citing personal reasons but the training regimen for Sindhu continued with Gopichand once again taking control. The first crack appeared in that relationship soon after she lost the 2018 Commonwealth Games final to Saina Nehwal and Ramana demanded more personalised attention for his daughter.

Sindhu then changed the venue and timing of her practice and went on to win her second world championships silver. She also became the first Indian badminton player to win an Asian Games silver a few months later and ended the year with her first BWF World Tour Finals crown.

Since her world championships loss against Okuhara in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2017, Sindhu had worked a lot on her on-court aggression and faster hand speed while playing her strokes and those changes were making an impact against quality players including the likes the deceptive Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei and the workhorses from Japanese and Chinese stable.

A new dimension

The arrival of the Korean duo of Park Tae Sang and Kim Ji Hyun in 2019 added a new dimension to Sindhu’s game as the latter worked a lot on her tactical analysis, discussing her matches and opponents and working out various situations during training to make her more independent on the court.

Those changes played an important role in helping Sindhu clinch the world title two years ago in Basel in a campaign that saw her comeback from the brink of defeat against Tai in the quarter-finals and then bulldoze Okuhara into submission in the final.

Sindhu has herself admitted a couple of times in the past that she can go blank at times on the court in a tactical sense and depends on the coach to pull her out of that situation. Gopichand had always been a master strategist and he and Kim were at hand in Basel when she needed inputs to change things around.

But the acrimonious departure of Kim – there are too many theories as to why she left but little clarification from the parties concerned – and coronavirus pandemic in 2020, have meant the dynamics have changed completely with current coach Park taking over the responsibility of being the planner and executioner for the Tokyo Olympics.

Sindhu and Park have been working together for almost two years now and have a certain comfort level that augurs well for the partnership. But there has been little opportunity for them to test the technical and tactical changes they have been working on in actual match situations due to the cancellation of many tournaments because of the pandemic.

The severity of the lockdown in India in 2020 also did not help their cause much as Sindhu was initially confined to her home and then decided to go to London to work on her strength and conditioning and trained there till the start of the new year.

Current form

After her return, they have been training at the Gachibowli stadium to get used to bigger hall conditions with a bunch of sparring partners. But unlike Sindhu’s challengers, who are getting enough match practice in their respective countries, the world champion has been depending on match simulations in practice and hence will start with a slight disadvantage in Tokyo.

It would also be interesting to see how the Covid-induced restrictions at the Games village affect Sindhu as there could be many uncontrolled variables that the players will have to deal with over the course of the competition.

There is not much to complain about in terms of the draw though as both Akane Yamaguchi, who she may face in the quarter-finals, and her possible semi-final opponent, Tai, have been mentally vulnerable in big tournaments and Sindhu has been able to exploit that weakness in the past.

It is true that she hasn’t really set any tournament on fire in the severely disrupted 2021 BWF calendar so far. But studying Sindhu’s form book ahead of any major championship has never been the benchmark one can base their predictions on.

The 26-year-old has just three Superseries level titles and the 2018 BWF World Tour Finals crown to show for her efforts on the Tour since Rio 2016 but has always managed to bring her ‘A’ game for the Worlds. She is today one of the most decorated women’s singles players in the tournament with one gold, two silver and two bronze medals.

The main area of concern for Sindhu at Tokyo will therefore be to ensure that she hits the ground running and finds a way to wriggle out of tight situations with Gopichand not being in her corner for the first time in such major events and Park not really tested on that front.

If she can manage to do that, a podium finish or even a potential gold medal is well within the reach of the 5’11’ shuttler.