The image of PV Sindhu going down on her knees and trying to cover her face with her hands after playing the tap on the net to clinch the BWF World Tour Finals title is enough to tell the story of how desperate the 23-year-old was to end a title drought that extended 13-months and seven finals (eight, including the senior nationals).
In two of them — Asian Games final against Tai Tzu Ying and 2018 world championship final against Carolina Marin — she came across opponents who were playing at a completely different level through the preceding week. Sindhu was guilty of getting her game plan wrong against Saina Nehwal in the senior nationals and the Commonwealth Games final and simply ran out of steam against Akane Yamaguchi in the BWF Superseries Finals last year.
But every loss added more fire to the talk about whether Sindhu lacked the mental resolve to cross the finish line, a chatter that started, unfortunately, soon after she lost the marathon final in the 2017 World Championship against Nozomi Okuhara.
A priceless win
It probably also didn’t help Sindhu’s cause that the loss against Nehwal in the Commonwealth Games final created tension in the Gopichand Academy as well with her father, PV Ramanna, feeling that the latter was using the training sessions to plot ways to beat his daughter. National coach Gopichand then had to find a way to sooth tempers by training both of them separately in two different facilities.
And knowingly or unknowingly for Sindhu, the self-doubts had started to creep in and it was important for her to find a way to shut all the noises out for her own good.
“I think the question won’t come again to me, asking why all the time I lose in the finals. I can say now that I have won the gold and I am really very proud of it,” said Sindhu after the match.
She also admitted that there was a stage in the match when Okuhara fought back in the first game when similar incidents in the previous finals did come to her mind and she had to brush them aside and focus on the next point. She did well to rely on the game plan and not push for easy points during that phase and it paid dividends for her.
And this is the positive that coach Gopichand and Sindhu would be more happy about that than the fact that she had broken the final hoodoo when they look forward to 2019 season and 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Soon after Sindhu’s semi-final win over Ratchanok Intanon and even after the title triumph, the world number six spoke about how she would lose 2-3 points thinking about what went wrong if the opponent manages to come back into the game after trailing for a long period.
“Couple of times when I was leading and she came back, I would be nervous before. But now I am comparatively much more stronger at it. Just focus on the next point. (Earlier) I tend to keep thinking and lose 2-3 points,” she had said after beating Intanon.
Those who have followed Sindhu’s career since her sub-junior days would vouch for the fact that Sindhu could go into this safety first mode where instead of relying on her strengths to kill the contest, she would just go passive when an opponent she was expected to beat fought back or go into a smashing spree to find easy winners.
In Guangzhou, throughout the five matches, a different Sindhu was on display. A Sindhu, who knew when to be patient without getting in the rut of simply putting the shuttle back into the opponent’s court and had enough confidence in her drives, half-smashes and ability to take the shuttle early and create an opening to win a point.
It is exactly why Gopichand chose to speak about the earlier matches and the wins in the run-up to the final more than the final itself after the title triumph.
This is something the coach and player had been working on since the loss to Yamaguchi this time last year and since then Sindhu has managed to beat the Japanese five times in their last six meetings and has generally dominated players who used basically try to lure her into playing longer rallies and nullify her attacking instinct.
To tackle that, Sindhu has been working a lot on her strength endurance and fine tuning her strokes and hand movement in training. All that came together in Guangzhou and resulted in a title triumph that would go a long way in silencing her detractors.
But more importantly, the victory at the end of year — in such an emphatic manner — should be looked at as a triumph of all the hard work she has put in over the year.
Turning silver to gold
For all those final loses, one cannot forget the fact that Sindhu is the only player to be a constant in all the major finals — world championship, year-end events and the Asian Games — since 2016 Rio Olympics summit clash.
Yes, she hasn’t made it to the summit clash of any World Tour Super 1000 events this year but in a packed calendar, the coach and player clearly would have decided to focus on certain tournaments and that showed in the way they took time off to train for them.
With 2019 being a relatively easy year in terms of scheduling, Sindhu can now focus on winning more tournaments on the World Tour and Gopichand has already spoken about how the Indian squad, and not just Sindhu, would be targeting the All England Open and the World Championship next year.
In that context, the BWF World Tour Finals title should not be looked at as an end to a 13-month title drought but a victory that opens up the possibility for many more successes with a clear eye on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Given the quality of players in women’s singles and the competition involved, there could be occasions in 2019 when Sindhu may once again falter at this hurdle or may not even reach that far in every tournament she plays.
But one thing is sure. Whenever Sindhu plays a major final ever again, she wont have the sword of self doubt hanging over her head. And the result would be determined on how well she played on the day rather than what came before.