The last week of December is normally a time to unwind, reflect on the year gone by and for many top athletes in the world, the only period for some ‘me’ time before another hectic season kicks-off.

But PV Sindhu doesn’t have this luxury as she juggles between public functions and sponsors’ commitments while putting herself through a hard grind on the badminton court to rediscover her mojo before the new season kicks off with the Malaysia Masters on January 7.

Unlike many of her compatriots, who are in a scrap for an Olympic qualifying spot, Sindhu is relatively assured of a Tokyo Olympic berth barring any disaster. But the 24-year-old is well aware of the scrutiny she faces from fans and experts with every loss on the BWF circuit.

“Sometimes I used to (lose my cool). But at the end of the day, I was like it’s fine... people keep saying things but I always take it in a positive way that they want me to win every time. I know they support me,” she told after a strenuous training session at the SAI-Gopichand Academy.

Sindhu’s stock hit an all-time high when she became the first Indian badminton player to win the World Championship crown in August 2019 and the sheer dominance she displayed in Basel only made the fans want even more. But things went downhill from that point on with the world No 6 failing to make it to the quarter-finals of five of the next six tournaments before being knocked out in the group stage of the BWF World Tour Finals, where she was the defending champion.

“Yes, I had losses and I felt bad. After the world championship, I had a good week and you know, maybe it took me some time to come back to training. In the World Tour Finals, I played really well but then I lost. Things happen. You will win, you will lose.

“But people kept saying that you have to reduce a lot of things. Reduce this, reduce that. You have to focus on training. Training is anywhere there. But you can’t always expect that you have to win every tournament.

“It’s not that a lot of stuff is going on on the outside and I don’t want to play. See, for a player, she always wants to play. She always wants to be there. She also wants to stay in the limelight,” said Sindhu.

They definitely did at the World Championship when Sindhu decimated most of her opponents en route to the title triumph. But they had also gone awry in the two preceding finals in 2017 and 2018 but the 24-year-old always managed to come back stronger in the next edition.

In fact, peaking in major tournaments has become a habit for Sindhu, who did not win any title on the World Tour in 2018 and ‘19 but reached the finals of the 2018 Asian Games and BWF World Championship and went on to win the year-ending World Tour Finals last year and was crowned the world champion this year.

And even Sindhu knows that she will be expected to repeat the same feat in Tokyo eight months from now and the pressure will start building with every passing week.

Get to learn a lot in PBL

Sindhu insisted that she doesn’t prepare any differently for major tournaments but admitted that longer preparation time and focus on certain areas for improvement have helped her peak in these events. In 2019, she got over three weeks to prepare before the Indonesia Open and the World Championship and the results followed.

Sindhu has a packed first half of the year as she will play the Malaysia and Indonesia Masters before turning up for the Hyderabad Hunters in the fifth edition of the Premier Badminton League before heading to Europe for the All England.

While many of her compatriots including Saina Nehwal, HS Prannoy, Kidambi Srikanth and Sameer Verma have opted out of the league to focus on the Olympic qualifiers, even regular internationals stars like Carolina Marin, Viktor Axelsen have decided to give the event a skip this year.

So the obvious question is why does Sindhu want to play the league instead of utilising that time for training and preparation?

“A lot of people thought why would I play PBL in an Olympic year... but for me, tournaments will always be there. It’s not that if you don’t play PBL, you will play well in Olympics.

“For me, its like there is only one league tournament in India where you get to play top player in a team event. In league games, you don’t just play for yourself but you play for yourself and the team. With foreign coaches and players sitting (at court side for your match), the way they see the mistakes you do, is different. One coach may say something, another coach may say a different thing. I think that works for me,” said Sindhu. She went on to explain how veteran Korean star Lee Hyun Il helped her figure out her approach to matches during the last edition.

“Last time in PBL, I was making a lot of mistakes and experienced players like him will know a lot more as they observe the match well. So when I was practicing with him, he told me about why I need to be lot more patient to cut out those mistakes. These are very small aspects but these will become big,” she added.

The another reason for Sindhu to play the PBL is enjoy playing badminton on her own terms instead of thinking too much about the Olympics and maintaining the ranking to get a good draw in Tokyo.

“Yes, it’s going to be a big year. So yes, Pressure is going to be high. If I think, oh I have to win, I have to win, that will definitely add extra pressure. And I don’t think I want to take so much pressure. Rather I just want to go on the court, just enjoy what I want to do,” she added.

Pressure will also be on others

Sindhu was a rank outsider when she went on to win the silver medal in Rio four years ago in what was her first Olympic Games. But this time she will the player to beat given her world champion status and her success in all major tournaments since 2016.

Though that will mean added pressure on Sindhu physically and mentally, the 24-year-old has an altogether different take.

“I feel even they will also have the same pressure as I do. Because they have also won a lot of matches but when it comes to me it’s different. With me, they will play differently because when I play in big tournaments, people have that feeling that Sindhu will play a different game. I think that will always be there in their mind,” added Sindhu. The Indian star has lost often to the likes of Tai Tzu Ying, Chen Yufei and others on the World Tour but consistently beaten them at major events.

In the run-up to Rio, Nehwal was still the biggest star of Indian badminton and was the centre of all attraction. But over the last four years, Sindhu has not just upstaged her senior compatriot but would be going into the Tokyo Olympics as one of India’s biggest medal hopes.

This will also mean a lot more pressure for public appearance from sponsors, state and central government and scrutiny from demanding fans.

Ask Sindhu about it and she gets philosophical.

“I feel happy, I really feel happy because this phase is not going to last all my life. It is only for a short period and you have to accept it.

“Right now, when people come to me asking for pictures, I don’t feel ‘oh it’s so irritating and I don’t want to do it’. It’s more like, you have to realise for what they are coming for. You have to know that people are actually recognising me and coming to me and asking for pictures. So you have to not see the outer side of ‘oh, it’s so irritating’, you have to see what are they feeling inside them. The way they express, you have to always understand that,” she added.

There is no doubt that Sindhu has come a long way from the lanky teenager at the start of the 2010 decade, who would get excited with every victory and go into a shell after a loss. She is more mature now and knows that winning and losing are just part of the process that has seen her take giant strides towards carving a position of her own in the badminton hall of fame.

And her fans and even Sindhu is hoping to scale more peaks in the new decade.