On the threshold of 2018, The Wire revisits some uplifting moments from 2017. Here’s 2017: The Year in Hope.
They said she was fast. They said she had fearsome power, allied to a lithe grace that saw her 179-cm frame cover every inch of the badminton court to optimum.
But they said, too, that she had potentially fatal flaws, chief among them a tendency to lose concentration that often saw her give up five, six points in a row and fall behind at clutch moments. They said her height was a disadvantage when it came to getting down quick and low for delicate net play. They said she didn’t have the wind to last three tough games against the best.
They said this at the end of 2016, P.V. Sindhu’s breakout year, in the course of which she won three Grand Prix titles, reached a Super Series final for the first time in her career at the Hong Kong Open and became India’s newest pin-up when, on August 20, 2016, she went down fighting to her friend and rival Carolina Marin in the badminton finals at the Rio Olympics.
It is the nature of top-level sport that in your early years they see your promise, but as you rise the focus shifts to your weaknesses. Sindhu began 2017 with an eight-hour training regimen aimed at optimising her fitness and staying power. She trained three-against-one, often with world number three Srikanth Kidambi as one of the three opponents across the net, and she developed a hand-speed so dazzling she seemed able to snag a hummingbird in flight.
She showed it all – the new-found stamina, the improved concentration, the dizzying hand-speed – in one of the greatest contests in the history of badminton when, on August 28, 2017, she faced off against Nozomi Okuhara in the finals of the World Badminton Championships in Glasgow.
That game produced the definitive image of Indian sport in the year just ending: at the end of a myth-making 77-second, 73-stroke rally, Sindhu slumped toward the ground in utter exhaustion. She looked across the court at her opponent lying curled in a foetal ball. And slowly, in a triumph of will over matter, her head came up; her fist clenched; she pushed herself erect again.
And yet it wasn’t enough. She wasn’t there yet, they said. She was peerless from the back of the court but Okuhara, covering the court like a Slinky toy on speed, had her measure in delicate exchanges at the net.
The answer to that came just three weeks later when she faced off against Okuhara in the final of the Korea Open on September 17. Leaving behind the overhead smashes and deep lifts that are a hallmark of her game, Sindhu matched the Japanese touch for touch, showcased a deceptive array of disguised slice smashes, and played drops delicate as the first snowflakes of a cold winter morning. As with Glasgow, this contest went into a third game, but now it was Sindhu who had the all-round game, the staying power, and the will to outlast her opponent.
Sindhu began 2017 with a wish-list: To win a Super Series title (she won two and placed second in two more) and to improve on the bronze she won at the 2013 World Championships (she alchemized that bronze into a silver in Glasgow).
At the start of what will be a gruelling 2018, with the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games tacked on to the already crowded WBF calendar, there is just one box left unticked: To be the best.
Prem Panicker is a journalist.