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What P.V. Sindhu needs to do to win the next big badminton final

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Sindhu needs to learn fast to bring out that something extra towards the closing stages and raise her game when the stakes are the highest.

Over 17 million viewers in India watched the 2016 Rio Olympics women’s singles final between P.V. Sindhu and Spain’s Carolina Marin. It was hard to balance out the feelings of pride and disappointment — we were oh-so-close to that Olympic Gold. We almost tasted the ultimate victory.

Sindhu seemingly shook herself off from that loss and marched on.

Yet from that day in Rio up until the 2018 Asian Games final, Sindhu has probably had one of the highest number of losses in big finals than anyone else on the international badminton circuit.

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Two in 2017 to the Japanese girls — the World Championships against Nozomi Okuhara in a record 1 hour 50 minutes thriller and then again against Akane Yamaguchi in the year-end Superseries final in Dubai (remember she beat Yamaguchi in the group stage in this tournament). Add to that the loss in the Senior National Championships final to compatriot Saina Nehwal.

2018 was no different. It started with the finals loss in her home tournament in New Delhi to lesser known American Beiwen Zhang. What followed were those silver medals at the Commonwealth Games, World Championships and now Asian Games too.

Our mind was made up some time ago — Sindhu chokes and is not ready psychologically to play big finals. Presented with her track record in finals, this deduction seems legitimate.

Yet take a closer look and a few facts come to the forefront.

  • 5 of these 8 matches, Sindhu lost the last game of the match by 2 points.
  • 4 of those 8 matches went into the 3rd game.
  • At the time of the Rio Olympics, Sindhu was ranked world no. 10. Since then her ranking has only gotten better and steadier. Since March 2017, she has not dropped out of the top 5 with her highest ranking being no. 2 in April the same year. She has been consistent at no. 3 since March 2018.
  • Since the last 5 World Championships (2013 to 2018), with her 4 medals, she is the most consistent singles player in the world, tied with Olympic champion China’s Chen Long who also has 4 medals in the men’s singles event.

These statistics are not presented to deny Sindhu’s finals’ performances. It is just to look at her career from a different perspective.

Now let us get back to the problem statement — All Those Finals.

Some she lost — being the favoured player. It’s sport — it happens.

Some she lost to an opponent who was clearly in better form. She was unlucky to face special champions of this era: Carolina Marin, Olympic gold medallist and three-time world champion raised her game to more than 100% in those matches and world no. 1 Tai Tzu Ying (in Asian Games final) from Taiwan is talent personified. With the kind of form they brought into those matches, I suspect they would have beaten any player in the world on that given day.

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The biggest room for improvement for Sindhu, though, lies in those finals that she lost by a whisker. First of all, getting herself into those tight situations time and again could have been avoided by playing a more positive game earlier in the match. Once the crucial points approached, tactical changes such as taking the initiative, adding some surprise elements to catch the opponent off-guard and playing the points with more awareness and anticipation could be potential solutions. So just saying that the problem was a psychological one would be over simplifying it.

Losing hurts. But it’s that much harder and more frustrating to digest when you were so close to the win — time and again.

Being as resilient as she is, Sindhu has been working on areas of her game in which she is weak. She is slowly plugging the gaps and along with her team, is figuring out answers. She is persevering while the rest of us are doubting her ability to be ‘the winner’.

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At the end of the recently concluded 4th Test match in the India-England cricket series, after India’s 60-run loss at Southampton, Indian captain Virat Kohli said, “When you come so close, there is an art of crossing the line as well, which we will have to learn.”

The same applies to the 23-year-old Sindhu. To add to the natural abilities she possesses, she will need to learn fast to bring out that something extra towards the closing stages and raise her game to more than 100% when the stakes are the highest.

As far as Sindhu is concerned, this topic has been over-discussed. It’s only because we care about our champion. We want to see her win because she deserves to. Let’s treat her with a patient hand, trust her unending efforts and power her with belief. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics is not too far away.

Aparna Popat has been India’s badminton champion nine times from 1997 to 2006.

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