For India's badminton star P. V. Sindhu, nothing glitters quite like gold

After several near-misses, P.V. Sindhu finally became badminton world champion following her dominant victory over Japan's Nozomi Okuhara last month in Switzerland. Less than a week later, the 24-year-old was having fun off the court as a guest model
After several near-misses, P.V. Sindhu finally became badminton world champion following her dominant victory over Japan's Nozomi Okuhara last month in Switzerland. PHOTO: REUTERS
After several near-misses, P.V. Sindhu finally became badminton world champion following her dominant victory over Japan's Nozomi Okuhara last month in Switzerland. Less than a week later, the 24-year-old was having fun off the court as a guest model
Less than a week later, the 24-year-old was having fun off the court as a guest model at a fashion show in Hyderabad, India.PHOTO: BEJJANKI HARISH

After finally winning world championship, Indian Sindhu's eyes are on Olympic title

Of all the objects that contain gold, bars and rings, bangles and necklaces, nothing is quite like the medal. It's not as valuable and yet infinitely more precious. It can't be bought and must be earned. It wakes people up, drives them to madness and makes them weep.

Like the woman on the phone from Delhi on Wednesday.

She is an aggressive badminton player on a long-legged flight path to serious greatness and is clarifying for me what gold means. I ask P.V. Sindhu's agent, Yashwanth Biyyala, if she cried two Sundays ago when she became champion of the world in Basel and she takes the phone from him.

"Even now," says Sindhu, "when I talk about it I sometimes have tears in my eyes and get goosebumps."

The new world champion, 24 and 1.79m, had just been to see the Indian steel minister, who presumably wanted to ask her what superior substance she's made of. Tenacity, she could have said.

Sindhu's been on a 10-day smiling, signing, posing, prime minister-meeting, dignitary-greeting expedition, like a surfer gliding across a wave of fame. Gold is won by a single player but it is worn by a nation.

She's the first Indian of any gender to be world champion, a feat so hefty that Biyyala gets 500 calls in three days and Sindhu can barely answer her texts because she's busy opening a badminton centre, doing a magazine shoot, walking the ramp and loving it because her make-up is usually a film of sweat.

Fun? "Yes, it is," she says. "I like all of it, I like fashion."

It is written that the vibrations created by a blue whale travel thousands of miles through oceans and it's a bit like the ripples Sindhu is sending across her land. It's not just the book being written on her, the film being made, the No. 13 rank on the Forbes highest-paid female athletes list with US$5.5 million (S$7.6 million) - the only Asian who earns more is Naomi Osaka. It's about the message she's delivering to young girls across her country.

Find a sport, make a racket, be greedy, chase gold.

Fame is not what Sindhu wakes up for but this gold. It glitters longer, it also takes a while. One day she watches a replay of her world championship final on her laptop and perhaps it's not the speed she moves at which overwhelms her but the distance she's come.

Bronze 2013-14, silver 2017-18, at the world championships. Silver, 2016 Olympics. Silver, 2018 Asian Games. Silver, 2018 Commonwealth Games. Gold teases her across the globe.

It's not that she hasn't won titles, for she's conquered Korea, Macau, China, but people are cruel, they'll remind you of what you haven't won, they'll drop the word "choke" like a casual curse, they won't understand that gold isn't some birthright and that silver means you're at the door, pounding, trying to kick it down, hinge by hinge.

Athletes hear every whisper of disdain. But, says Sindhu, "I didn't take it to heart. After losing I used to feel bad for one-two days. I just think I have to work harder. I can't think it's over with one loss." Pride was married to patience.

Her coach, P. Gopichand, who owns his own gold from the 2001 All England Championships, is impatient with lazy talk. "Over the years I've heard many things, but we don't live our lives based on people's talk. They see a match one day and comment, but we live the life, we understand you need to put in work consistently".

They know the road to gold is rough, it's tears wiped, it's hours of smashes and days of drops, it's not stopping when you're aching and no one's looking. Her trainer, Srikanth Varma, says: "She never says I am sore. Never says today I don't want to do that". Gopichand is his echo: "She'll work endless hours, she's not going to get tired."

Gold doesn't give you warning, it just comes, and for her it arrives against Nozomi Okuhara 21-7, 21-7. On that Sunday, Sindhu makes violence look smooth, she assaults elegantly, she doesn't so much smash as honour her volleyball-playing parents by spiking the shuttle.

Gopichand is watching so intensely he forgets the score. At 16-2, in the first game, he, sitting courtside with fellow coach Kim Ji-hyun, asks: "Is it 2?" She tells him, "Maybe it's 4?" It's a dominance that's left her coaches in a daze.

STILL MOVED

Even now, when I talk about it I sometimes have tears in my eyes and get goosebumps.

P.V. SINDHU, reigning badminton world champion, on her feat last month.

Gold alters lives, provokes the appetite and rouses foes. And there are many. The women's game is akin to an art gallery, full of disparate individual games of stylishly joyous design, from Carolina Marin to Ratchanok Intanon, Tai Tzu-ying to Okuhara, Akane Yamaguchi to Chen Yufei.

And they like gold, too. Especially the Olympic kind.

"When we went to Rio (in 2016)," explains Gopichand, "no one bothered about Sindhu. It will be different going into Tokyo, people will be gunning for her."

Tokyo is her "ultimate aim" but, says Sindhu, "step by step". The pressure will rise like the heat but athletes know its taste. "People expect you to win all the time," she says, "wherever you go, and it's not possible. But you have to just think about yourself."

Just train, sweat, lunge. Just smash, leap, lift. Just forget this talk that she's the greatest Indian athlete ever. Just look at the mirror instead and think: I haven't even yet found my greatest self.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2019, with the headline 'Nothing glitters quite like gold'. Print Edition | Subscribe