WELL-BEHAVED WOMEN seldom make history. History, meet Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, all of 24 and already the first Indian to win gold at the World Badminton Championships in Basel, Switzerland. The 10-year-old who caught coach Pullela Gopichand’s eye was given a slot at 4.30 am that required her father to drive her 40 km from Secunderabad to the coaching academy in Gachibowli for a solo two-hour session every day, six days a week. The silver medallist at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016 who smiled through her disappointment at losing in the finals. The sleek, 5’11” sportstar whose face sells brands as varied as Gatorade and Bank of Baroda, Yonex and Moov. Through it all, PV Sindhu has become one of India’s most beloved sportswomen, a testament to a spirit that soars as high as the Tricolour that went up when she stood on the podium last week.
It’s not merely because she brings home medals or that her name lends itself easily to a winning social media hashtag ‘Sindhustan’, which first popped up after her win in Rio. It’s also that we, the flat-footed, unathletic, low-achieving public, have witnessed her slow and steady ascent to the top of the badminton world, transformed from a tentative youngster to an aggressive world-beater. Yet we don’t see beyond the shy smile and the killer lunge. We don’t see her eight-hour training day. The 100 push-ups and 200 sit-ups every day. The yoga and the swimming. The two to three sets of 10 400-m runs alternating with a single 2.4-km run every other day. The frustration of choking repeatedly in key finals, such as the Olympics, the World Championships, Commonwealth Games or the Asian Games.
As India’s first individual Olympic gold medallist, Abhinav Bindra said about her to Open: “I believe PVS’ ability to bring out her best on the big stage is something unique and only a few can manage. Her ability to cope with expectations has been impressive. And although she is single-minded… she seems to maintain, at least from the outside, a good balance towards her passion, which I think is critical towards her sustained success.”
But no sporting success is ever the work of merely one person. Sindhu’s parents, both national-level volleyball players (her father was a bronze medallist with the Indian team at the 1986 Asiad), were critical in her growth. They took care not merely to nurture her sporting talent by sending her to live at the Gopichand Academy hostel to cut down on the commute but also moving home to live with her in an apartment close by in 2010 when they felt the then teenager needed more emotional support.
Gopichand’s coaching has made her physically and mentally stronger. While he worked on her game, he got trainer Christopher Paul to devise a physical training regimen for her lithe frame. Gopichand, who also trained Saina Nehwal (except for three years when she opted for former national badminton champion U Vimal Kumar), is a tough disciplinarian, who famously micromanages the lives of his star students, from how much they sleep to what they eat, to how much telephone time they can have, to their media interactions. He knows world champions are not made by playing nice and walking on eggshells. The process is relentless and often unforgiving—so is he.
Only rarely does he allow her distractions, some of which are now essential to sustaining Brand Sindhu, whether it is shooting ad films or glamour magazine covers. Not for nothing is Sindhu number 13 in this year’s Forbes list of the world’s highest-paid female athletes, with earnings of $5.5 million.
Gopichand has also had to balance the interests of his two star pupils, so much so that in 2018, Saina and Sindhu decided to train with him but at separate venues. Having struggled his way to the top, the former all-England champion has made it his life’s mission to make India a badminton champion-producing nation. After her 2016 Olympics defeat, Gopichand had said: “The world still hasn’t seen the best of Sindhu.” A gold-starved Sindhustan can only hope and pray he is proved right at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.