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Pusarla Venkata Sindhu: The Rising Star

Bronze in 2013, Bronze in 2014, Silver in 2017, Silver in 2018 and now, Gold in 2019. PV Sindhu, whose rise marked the arrival of India as a major force in Badminton, is now the first Indian to win a gold in World Championships. An unstoppable Sindhu put up a flawless performance to crush Japan's Nozomi Okuhara 21-7, 21-7. Sai Praneeth became the first Indian men's singles player to win a World medal in 36 years.

What is the crowning glory for PV Sindhu?
PV Sindhu pulled off a brilliant 21-7, 21-7 victory against Nozomi Okuhara to clinch the BWF World Championship title in Basel. Sindhu became the first Indian shuttler ever to win a World Championships gold and also the second player ever to win five World Championship medals.
Two years after being robbed off the gold by Okuhara in an epic 110-minute final at Glasgow that went down as one of the greatest battles in badminton history, Sindhu took just 38 minutes to exorcise the ghost of that heart-wrenching loss with a completely dominating win over the same opponent.

It was Sindhu's fifth World Championships medal - joint most for a woman singles player with former Olympics and world champion Zhang Ning of China - to go with the two successive silvers (2017, 2018) and a couple of bronze medals (2013, 2014). Sindhu has also won an Olympic silver in 2016 Rio Games, a silver at Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, an Asian Games silver at Jakarta and the BWF World Tour Finals last year.

Prakash Padukone became the first Indian to win a medal in World Championships

She is the fourth Indian to win a World medal. Prakash Padukone became the first Indian to win a medal in World Championships with a men’s singles bronze in the 1983 edition while Saina Nehwal bagged a silver and a bronze in 2015 and 2017 respectively in women’s singles. The third Indian to win the medal is Sai Praneeth who created history by becoming the first men's singles player since Prakash Padukone in 1983 to win a medal at the World Championships.

“Last time, I lost in the final, before that also I lost in the final, so it is a very important win for me. I want to thank the crowd for supporting me. I won it for my country and I am very proud being an Indian, A big thanks to my coach Kim and Gopi sir and my supporting staff and I dedicate this win to my mom, it’s her birthday today,”  she added.

Why is this victory worth the wait?

They say you never win a silver – you always lose a gold. Sindhu lost gold twice in the past two years. While her talent was never in doubt, her ability to bring out her best in the final was up for some debate.

While she lost to Okuhara in the 2017 edition, Olympic champion Carolina Marin of Spain stopped her in the summit clash in 2018 after she had beaten Okuhara in the semi-finals. Earlier, in an 83-minute match, she was defeated by Marin in a gruelling three-setter, by 21–19, 12–21, 15–21, in the 2016 Olympics final. Even in defeat, she forged history by becoming the first female individual to bag an Olympic Silver medal representing India. With too much silver in her wardrobe, it is understandable that she got bored of the metal that is at best second-best.

Sindhu, who was seeded fifth, came into the prestigious event this year with a runner-up finish at the Indonesia Open last month and had been working on her fitness and defence in her pursuit to outlast her opponents. They key statistic was that she yet again won a silver. Sindhu's quest for her maiden title of 2019 ended in disappointment as she went down 15-21, 16-21 to Japanese 4th seed Akane Yamaguchi in Jakarta on July 21.

Sindhu was left to lament a sub-par display in the final against her Japanese opponent after clinching her silver medal. "I could have continued from there but gave her the lead at that point and then she finished it off. If I had won the first game, maybe it would have been a bit different. Second game I gave her a huge lead and had to cover up." She would not repeat the same mistake in the World final.

She also spoke about the need to be alert throughout the game, against any of the top 10 ranked opponents. "It's very different now. Some of the players are around but a new lot of players have also come up, there are the new Chinese players. Then and now, the game has changed a lot. The matches are going on really long, there is a need to be very much patient. No one can take it easy against lower-ranked players, because the top 10 players are at the same level now. Anyone can beat anyone on their day," she said.

"I have worked on mental as well as physical fitness. Matches have been really long nowadays. Everything is like a chain where you need to touch up on everything. It's not just that you do physical and leave the skill part. I think I have been working out on skill a lot more," she said in another interview on July 4. "Because, now the game has changed a lot. A lot of people have been working out on their skills and physical. I think it is very important to keep yourself fit as well as in your skill work, you need to be very much perfect as well. So, I have been working on that," she said when asked if she worked on something new.

"Every time, we need to change. Because, it is not the same every time. Not only you, your opponents change their game," she said. "Now, there are video cameras, there are videos, analysing and doing everything. Even though we go with one strategy, when you go on to court, every point can be comparatively different. That's what I feel," she added. Sindhu said her training with new coaches, who have come a few of months ago, has been good. She is currently training with Korea’s Kim Ji Hyun“The players can learn new techniques from every coach as each one has different thinking and experience”, she said.

If there is one thing Sindhu needed to work on, coming into the final, it was to finish off a game when in a commanding position. Sindhu had been guilty on many occasions of allowing her opponents back into the match after taking a sizeable lead in games. That said, she has been playing at the cutting edge of badminton for the last four years. With a bit of luck she could have won the 2017 final. Such has been Sindhu’s performance that ‘could have’ was not acceptable anymore.
Sometimes you got to be tired of not being No. 1. Before 2019, Sindhu had won a medal at four of the five previous Worlds she had played, and the player who had defeated her in each of those four editions had gone on to win the tournament. Sindhu entered the final tired of being called a double-silver medalist.

Note: The world championships are held annually, except in Olympic years. It wasn’t held in 2016.

When was the stage set for the final?

Sindhu reached the final in devastating form – as if there was no time to lose before and during the final. World No 3 and All England Champion Chen Yu Fei of China was outclassed 21-7, 21-14 in a 40-minute semifinal. It was all happening a bit too fast for Yufei. In her straight games defeat, the Chinese was skittled by Sindhu whose court coverage has been impressive throughout this tournament. It was that kind of a match, where the rallies bore testament to the work that Sindhu has put in her speed.

Pressured by the prospect of regular meetings on the tour against the likes of Akane Yamaguchi and Nozomi Okuhara, both of whom hannelize in stretching the rallies and tiring their opponents, it’s evident that Sindhu has, over the past couple of years, ramped up her defensive game. Some detractors have continued to term her movement on the court as ‘not fluid’ and perhaps rightly so as her tall frame can prove to be a disadvantage when subjected to bends and turns at the net while returning drop shots.

Nevertheless, her movement has proved fairly sufficient in keeping up the play until she finds the space she needs to pull out her lethal smashes. On her way to the World Championships final, Sindhu showed why she is arguably now a 360 degree player, with hardly any weaknesses out there to be exploited, the improved defensive game supplementing her naturally attacking play.

Moreover, she seems to have aced the formula of dictating the course of play against her opponents, fishing out shots to her liking which would allow her to thrash her opponent. The smashes which fetch her a bucket-load of points are the end result. But it’s the way she orchestrates the rallies which make up the means to that end. In her pre-quarter-final match against the USA’s Beiwen Zhang, Sindhu stayed put at the centre while Zhang was made to cover all corners and repeat, as in a practice drill.

Sindhu entered the final having only dropped a game once in the tournament against the former World No 1 Tai Tzu Ying in the quarter-finals. Pai Yu Po, Beiwen Zhang and even Chen Yufei couldn’t make the lanky Indian sweat. On the other side, Okuhara did not drop a game against former World No 2 Sung Ji Hyun and China’s He Bingjiao. Ratchanok Intanon stretched her all the way in an 80-minute semi-final encounter. She entered the final more tired than Sindhu. All Sindhu needed to do was to not panic in the final.

Where did Sindhu excel in the final?

She started well, remained steady and never panicked. After Okuhara opened the match with the first point, Sindhu went on to dominate the game after taking eight straight points to make it 8-1. From there, with a variation of backhands and forehands, Sindhu made her opponent work hard until she took a massive lead of 14-2.

The fifth seeded Indian, who came into the match with an 8-7 head-to-head lead over third seeded Okuhara, was simply unstoppable as she dished out an attacking game right from the start to race to an 11-2 lead. The Indian targeted the deep corners and unleashed her big smashes to gather points at will.Okuhara tried to step up the pace but an alert Sindhu was up to the task. Sindhu used her height to produce those attacking clears which Okuhara could not negotiate.

At 16-2, Sindhu committed a couple of unforced errors before again taking control of the match. Sindhu eventually grabbed 13 game points when Okuhara went long and she sealed the first game with a body blow which her rival sent out. Using her height and energy, she bagged the first game by 21-7.

In the second game of the match, she channelized her momentum of the first game, and got two quick points. Okuhara had no answer to Sindhu’s razor sharp returns. The Indian made the Japanese run to the deep corners with her acute angled returns and then swiftly followed them at the net to make life difficult for her opponent. Okuhara replied in kind and tried to set off a comeback, but her unforced errors gave Sindhu another massive 11-4 lead. From there, the Indian made a couple of errors but she kept the tide with her with a powerful smash towards the end.
Sindhu grabbed the match point when Okuhara went long again and sealed the title when another superb return before throwing her hands in the air in celebration. She had got the elusive gold. It’s easy to call her ‘third-time lucky’ but luck really had no role in the final. Her hard work took luck out of the equation.

Who else made some history for India?
B Sai Praneeth becomes first Indian male to win BWF World Championships medal in 36 years
Just a week after being chosen for the prestigious Arjuna AwardB Sai Praneeth on August 24 breezed past Christie 24-22, 21-14 in 51 minutes to progress to the semi-finals, assuring himself of a bronze medal. He became the first men’s singles player after Prakash Padukone in 1983 to win a World Championships medal.

Praneeth lost 21-13, 21-8 to World No. 1 Kento Momota in the semifinals providing only flickers of possibilities of how intact India’s men’s brigade can emerge from being thrown into a foundry with the world’s very best. Momota went on to easily win the final for second year in a row. He outclassed 22-year-old Dane Anders Antonsen, who had stunned Olympic champion Chen Long in the quarter-finals, 21-9 21-3 in another one-sided match.

This bronze is big for Praneeth. It is not like he had been a complete dud on the international circuit. He upset then world No 2 Lee Chong Wei at the 2016 All England Open, won the 2017 Singapore Open Superseries title and has been in and around the top-20 for the past three-four years. But his lack of consistency and a knack of losing matches from seemingly comfortable positions has been his bane in the past.

It helped that the world No 19 was coming from a good run at the Japan Open Super 750 and Thailand Open Super 500 tournaments, where he reached the semis and quarters respectively. “I think the five week training before the three tournaments in Asia helped me a lot in terms of improving my fitness and the results in Japan and Thailand gave me a lot of confidence. In Basel, the court conditions were to my liking and that draw was also good and that whole confidence allowed me to play well so far,” he told after beating Christie in the quarter-finals to assure himself of a medal.
But, to be able to deliver at Tokyo 2020, Praneeth has his task cut out

A good follow-up shot to India’s first men’s singles medal in 36 years would be getting into serious contention at the Olympics. Otherwise, Sindhu-Saina will headline yet another Olympics. For those are the high standards the Indian women have set: win it or leave it.

Momota in the semi-final highligthed the deficiencies of Praneeth in the 42-minute semifinal. “I suddenly lost 3 points with small mistakes and with that the flow,” he later said. “Compared to last time I was playing the strokes, pushing the pace but not getting points. So I was mentally getting tired and I didn’t know what to do after 3-4 strokes,”he admitted.

Arvind Bhatt

Former international Player Arvind Bhat believes it’s not just mental fitness. The men need to be physically fitter too. Bhat reckons Sai Praneeth, HS Prannoy and Kidambi Srikanth all have the necessary games, but need a bedrock of fitness, which is non-negotiable. “Sai has to lose weight. He’s at least 4-5 kg heavy to be competitive consistently at the top medal level. Badminton needs you to be underweight, most top players look malnourished, but all of our men’s singles guys need to get the lean muscle mass up. And this will need sacrifices – doing things they completely hate, like running,” he says

Bhat gives the example of Chinese Lin Dan in 2012 when going for his second Olympic title. “Apparently thrice a week he undertook long runs in hot weather on a scalding beach, just to train for situations that could be completely different. He risked illness and even missing out on Olympics. But sacrifices need to be made, even if it means cordoning players off for a year,” he explained. “Everyone will train 3 sessions like a donkey. An Olympic medal needs a sacrifice above that.”
Losing to Kento Momota might just ignite that flame. Praneeth is in good company to keep the flame alive. He said Sindhu’s win inspires him and they both usually train together.

How does India’s future in badminton look?

It looks very Bright. The ever-rising popularity of badminton in India and consistent results of Indian shuttlers on the global stage have propelled a staggering 2518 entries from 1415 players at the Yonex-Sunrise All India Sub Junior (U-15 & U-17) Ranking Badminton Tournament 2019 in July. Domestic tournaments have been seeing a rapid rise in the number of entries of late like the All India Sub-junior ranking event in Hyderabad last year which received 2841 entries from 1596 players while a Nagpur tournament had 2528 entries from 1405 players.

Pullela Gopichand

The youngsters are lining up – the future appears shiny. But there is a huge problem to be addressed. For years now, two names have dominated headlines in Indian badminton. Mentored by former All England champion Pullela GopichandSaina Nehwal pioneered India’s rise in international badminton around a decade back and was joined at the top by PV Sindhu few years later.

The unprecedented success of Sindhu and Nehwal made India a force to reckon with at the highest levels of the game. The two women inspired more success too, fostering a competitive culture that made many of their male contemporaries — like the 2014 Commonwealth Games champion Parupalli Kashyap (who is also Nehwal’s husband), and Kidambi Srikanth, who was briefly the world No 1 last year — touch new milestones.

While Nehwal and Sindhu continue to maintain their status as top-10 players in women’s singles, the next best Indians in the women’s line up are Mughda Agrey and Rituparna Das at No 62 and 64 respectively, with five more in the 80s and 90s. Compare this to men’s singles, where as many as seven Indians are in the top-50 (Srikanth in top 10). In addition, there is junior world No 2 Lakshya Sen, who is already nearing the top-50 in seniors. There is a second line of players when it comes to the men, moving through the ranks.

A comparison that cuts even closer home is with Denmark. The only non-Asian powerhouse remaining in the sport has plenty of men’s singles players in the top 25, but has seen a dramatic drop in women’s singles since their three-time All England winner Tine Baun retired in 2013. Their top doubles pairs in all three categories, who regularly won medals at the Olympics or World Championships, have also already retired or are in the twilight of their careers. Chief national coach Gopichand didn’t mince words when asked about the gap. “We haven’t had a program for the younger group. We have not given any of the younger players exposure,” he says. “The transition between junior to senior, we haven’t really done anything for them.”

Rituparna Das

Though some rising players like Rituparna Das and G Ruthvika Shivani began well, they have not been able to raise their games beyond winning some lower tier Badminton World Federation (BWF) tournaments. Both the shuttlers are 22. By this age Nehwal had already won the world junior championship, a Commonwealth Games gold and multiple Superseries tournaments. She also claimed the Olympic bronze at 23. Sindhu had already claimed an Olympic silver and three World Championship medals among several other titles on the BWF World Tour at the same age.

U Vimal Kumar, former national coach and now chief coach at the Prakash Padukone Academy, says that one of the main reasons for the lack of a depth of talent is the lack of quality academies in India. In a country this vast, there are only two truly world class centres — Gopichand’s academy in Hyderabad and Padukone’s in Bengaluru“Everybody has been coming to the south but we need more good centres, especially in the north, I have been saying this for 10 years,” Kumar says. “Even in the east or northeast, we need a good backup (of players) from these regions.”
The highest test of the mettle of India’s shuttlers will happen next year in Tokyo. Sindhu will go as a favorite to upgrade the color of her Olympic medal, but the men will be fired up too

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