It was a much-awaited comeback for PV Sindhu in Kuala Lumpur to start off the 2023 season. Of course, after a long break due to injury and rehab, it wasn’t the easiest way to return to high level action... facing her good friend and great on-court rival Carolina Marin in the opening round of the Malaysia Open Super 1000.

The match ended in another defeat for Sindhu that pushed the head-to-head to 10-5 in Marin’s favour, but the performance from the Indian was impressive nonetheless, objectively speaking. Marin is not easy to face being close to a peak, but here was Sindhu at the foothills of a journey back to a high level. To come back from a slow start and push Marin to a decider, before eventually bowing out in three games... all said and done it was a good effort from Sindhu. There wasn’t any worrying sign.

Or so most of us thought. But Sindhu’s coach Park Tae Sang surprised many with his emotional note on Instagram. “Returned after 5 months. And unfortunate results. everyone, her lack is my fault as a coach,” he wrote. “We will prepare for the Indian Open in Delhi next week. Please encourage @pvsindhu1 rather than reprimand.”

And then he added, “I’ll try harder.”

That’s the sort of thing that has endeared him to many. In his short time on Indian soil, Coach Park – as he is widely known – has become somewhat of a cult figure in the Indian badminton community. From his epic celebrations on the coaching chair with Sindhu in Tokyo, to his interviews where he spoke about learning words like “aaram se”, and to his general demeanour on and off the court, the Korean has won over his fair share of fans.

It’s not always been easy for him either, what with constantly having to get better in English in order to communicate with Sindhu, but also having to deal with the weight of expectations that come with being the man tasked with taking arguably India’s greatest ever individual sport athlete to even greater heights.

In a conversation with ahead of India Open Super 750, coach Park spoke about Sindhu’s comeback match against Marin, her plans for 2023 and beyond, wanting to do better as a coach and more.

(L-R) Dibirath Sen (MD & Head of Global Banking North India & India Lead for Sustainable Finance, HSBC India), shuttlers Lakshya Sen, PV Sindhu, Sanjay Mishra (General Secretary, BAI), Vishu Tolan (Vice-President, BWF), Vikram Dhar (MD, Sunrise Sports India Pvt Ltd), shuttlers Carolina Marin and Anthony Sinisuka Ginting at the Yonex-Sunrise India Open 2023 press conference in New Delhi on Monday, January 16

How is Sindhu feeling right now? A tough match against Marin in Malaysia, but she moved well, looked physically good.

You are right, Sindhu is feeling nice, close to 100% OK. Last week was a little disappointing, yeah, but I actually applaud Sindhu, because it was her first tournament, first match in five months. Marin is very good. We have been working on part of her defence in the lead-up to the tournament. Actually, when she loses these matches, there is a defensive problem. That was the little same against Marin. We watched videos, analysing Marin and all, but five months without playing...

Yes, so match time is much different from training time. How much ever a player trains after a long injury break, the body takes its time.

Yeah, yeah. So, to be honest, I wanted us to enter the BWF World Tour Finals last December. Because the body would have been different start of season now if she had played that one tournament last year. But we couldn’t make it, it was a little hard then.

What did you think were the positives from the Marin match?

When I spoke to Sindhu after the Marin match, ‘Sindhu you played very well today, Ok? Part of defence was a little not good but you are getting improvements very well now. So no problem.’

Has Sindhu worked on her backhand in the break? That was one of her standout shots in the match against Marin.

(Smiles) Yes, it was very good. You are right. Her backhands worked really well. After we came back to Hyderabad, we focussed fully on defence. That’s been the focus.

When you spoke at India Open 2022, you had mentioned the importance of Sindhu winning titles apart from major events too. Whether a Super 300 or Super 500... and she went on to win three. That was significant right? So what are your targets for 2023?

Yes, to get title is a very happy feeling. But we have already discussed this year, with many back-to-back tournaments and Olympic qualification starting in May... that’s why after Malaysia and India we will not go for the next couple of events in Indonesia and Thailand. She told me she is OK but we have to understand she is not yet at 100% of what she was before getting hurt. I want, little by little, to increase hard training. Gradually, harder trainings.

From May, Olympic qualification is very important because seeding is going to be very important in Paris. We will have to play continuous weeks. So before May we have to control how much she plays. Because we have to realise she is going to be 28 this year. So, little bit – little bit! (smiles) – she is different physically compared to 2019 Worlds, Olympics in 2021.

Do you look back at your journey since coming to India? Are you more used to conversing with Sindhu? Are things easier now? Have you reflected on this personal growth?

I came to India with the national team in 2019 February, and then I was with Sai [Praneeth], Srikanth and Prannoy. Then after world championships in 2019, I became Sindhu’s coach. I am very thank you to Sindhu. Actually, my English is still no good. Not 100%. But Sindhu, she very well understood me. Now she teaches me, she understands quickly what I am trying to say. She quickly catches. Life is very happy in Hyderabad, Gopi sir always took care of me. Sindhu too... and all players there, their relationships are very kind, they take good care of me.

You were part of the Thomas Cup campaign support staff. That must have been a great feeling.

Oh yeah and Commonwealth Games also. That was amazing. 2022 was really an amazing year for Indian badminton right? Maybe this year too but more importantly, 2024.

So how do you, as a coach, draw up plans and targets? Do you tell Sindhu to keep targets for the short term only or the plan is for Paris?

The main focus is on Olympic Games, surely. My focus is on Paris. You remember, when Olympics got postponed... at that time my practice program was only focussed on Tokyo. Then we got a lot of time and I was actually happy. Sure this time there are a lot of tournaments coming up but our overall focus is only on next year’s Olympics. It is a long journey and that is what I am looking forward to.

When Sindhu plays one match of the tournament that is very hard, then next match she misses out. Remember last year’s All England quarterfinal against Akane? Very hard, very hard match. So intense. She won that but next day when she met Pornpawee Chochuwong... Sindhu is actually very strong in that match-up. It was very different from the two days. I ask Sindhu, what happened. She could see her legs were tired.

So make this plan this year that if she does well in one tournament, then we will take a little break for next tournament. I think she needs that now, instead of continuously playing.

So, this year, you almost have to strike a balance between playing regularly for ranking points and giving Sindhu’s body a break?

First yes, very important she keeps her world ranking top 8. Actually if you see in men’s singles, seeded player or unseeded player doesn’t matter. Even the first-round matches are very hard. But women’s singles, seeded player is a little bit of advantage still. Of course, last week Marin played Sindhu and India Open, Marin vs Okuhara. But sometimes it helps to get easier opponent in first round. My plan this year is balance. Tournament participation control.

We know Sindhu has thousands of fans, but some of them are also your fans now... how has that been?

Some fans directly messaged me on Instagram, ‘coach please you leave, we don’t need you for Sindhu career’. But I understand. It happened when Sindhu lost continuous matches to Tai Tzu Ying in Malaysia. I understood but I also want to resolve how Sindhu can defeat Tai and An Se Young. I try, along with her trainer and physio, we keep trying to get Sindhu better and have a long career. If player lose, then first problem is with the coach, so I apologised. [How do you remain positive all the time] because as a coach, I am supposed to give off that positive energy.