2016 was certainly the year of the Indian sportswoman – a year in which she leapt higher, sprinted faster and fought harder than her male counterparts.
If Aditi Ashok was out conquering golf courses and sinking putt after putt, Deepa Malik became the first Indian woman to win a Paralympic medal at Rio 2016, shot-putting her way to glory. Sakshi Malik opened India’s account at the Rio Olympics by bagging a bronze in wrestling while Dipa Karmakar missed out on an Olympic medal by a whisker.
But no Indian shone brighter at world sport’s quadrennial extravaganza than PV Sindhu, salvaging a miserable campaign for the 100-plus strong contingent, becoming the youngest Indian, man or woman to win an individual Olympic medal, losing out to Carolina Marin in the finals of the woman’s singles badminton tournament.
More years at the top?
In the light of what she has achieved this calendar year, it can sometimes be very easy to forget that Sindhu is only 21 and barring the 18-year old Aditi, the youngest of all the names mentioned above.
Although Saina Nehwal, five years senior to Sindhu, had won four of her ten Super Series titles by the time that she was 21, Nehwal’s first BWF Super Series Premier title (All England Open, China Open, Denmark Open, Indonesia Open, Malaysia Open are considered as Super Series Premier titles) – the 2012 Indonesia Open win came after she had turned 22. Sindhu’s victory at the 2016 China Open over the current world number four Sun Yu of China made her the youngest Indian woman to win a Super Series Premier title.
Her run to the Olympic final saw her playing against players ranked sixth, second and eighth on the circuit in the pre-quarters, quarters and the semis but she did not drop a single game against these opponents and was only stretched by then World no. 2 and 2012 silver medallist Wang Yihan. In a pulsating close-run match, Sindhu demonstrated her increased fitness levels to overcome a very experienced opponent in the Chinese veteran.
In Rio, Sindhu was aggressive, staring down the enemy before gunning them down with razor sharp strokes from what seemed like an endless wingspan. In the final, she took a game off the all-conquering Spaniard Marin, something that had not been done till that point in the Olympics. In the end, it proved to be a bridge too far for the Hyderabadi against a rival who had been in a different zone for the preceding two years, but it was a credible performance nonetheless.
Chinks and improvements
One of the most obvious areas of progress in Sindhu’s game has been her fitness levels, with credit going to messrs. Pullela Gopichand and his coaches at the eponymous academy in Hyderabad. She continues to look legged towards the end of games, but gone are the days where she would completely wilt in the concluding parts of long drawn-out matches. She has also played 19 ranking tournaments in the year, the highest of all players in the top 10.
Her ranking has gone up from 12 – at the start of the year to an all-time high of 6 as of date. As seen in the image above, she is fast closing in on the top five of which only Tai Tzu-Ying looks safe as she is some distance ahead. The Hyderabadi lass must also be wary of not being overtaken by the others behind her in a jam-packed table.
Although her defence has immeasurably improved resulting in her seen as a retriever reaching far more shots than before, the quality of her returns and her ability to control the flow of a point remain suspect at times. Against Sung Ji-Hyun in the semifinals of the Dubai Super Series Masters finals, Sindhu was made to run around the court by the Korean as the Indian gave the opponent too much of a lead in the final game, committing some unforced errors as well through lapses in concentration, and was left with too much ground to catch up.
She had no answer to Marin’s sharp stroke play in the latter stages of their Rio final and needs to alter her game at times to counter different opponents. She does not have a winning record against the top ten barring Sun Yu and Akane Yamaguchi and southpaws in particular – Marin and He Bingjiao are a nagging concern for her with their shots and smashes into the body – an area where she definitely needs some work.
The consistency that saw compatriot Saina Nehwal rise to the top of the rankings is some way off, something that coach Gopi would have taken note of. Following Rio, her next two tournaments ended in defeats at the round of 16. She beat Sun Yu in the finals of the China Open but lost to the Chinese six-footer in straight games in the league stages of the season ending Dubai Super Series Masters tournaments.
It is understood that it is surely not possible for her to win every tournament but should she be more judicious in picking the tournaments that she participates in? For now, let’s raise a toast to an incredible 2016 that has seen India have not one, but two world-class singles players.