By Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena
Earlier this year, I made a trip to Hyderabad, the city that has produced three of India’s best known female sporting champions, to meet one of them, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu (Sania Mirza and Saina Nehwal being the other two). I met her within 12 months of her becoming the youngest Indian to win a medal at the Olympics. Just 21 in Rio, the young shuttler had overnight become the darling of the nation.
Having seen her play – in the capital’s Sirifort Sports Complex when clad in her familiar Yonex attire Sindhu had clinched the India Open Superseries tournament, vanquishing Olympic gold medallist Carolina Marin of Spain in the finals – I had witnessed a focus, commitment and never-say-die attitude that make a winner.
When I interacted with her at home, however, the Padma Shri awardee seemed to be a different person altogether – quiet, though articulate, soft-spoken and reserved.
Since then, Sindhu has triumphed over her Japanese rival Nozomi Okuhara – a player to whom she had lost in the finals of the World Championship this year – to emerge the winner in the Korean Open Super Series. She has also become the second athlete after former Indian cricket team skipper MS Dhoni to be nominated for the Padma Bhushan this year.
Although she seems to take fame in her stride, Sindhu admits to life being different after the Olympics. “The Rio win changed many things for me,” says the 22-year-old sports star, who is brand ambassador for the Swachh Andhra Mission and a deputy collector for an Andhra district.
“Today, people recognise me and ask me for an autograph, or they want to take a photo with me. But I know I still have a long way to go,” she adds.
The daughter of volleyball players P Vijaya and PV Ramana, it was her parents’ support that got Sindhu where she is today. The family used to live in Secunderabad, about 25 kilometres away from the badminton academy. For more than four years, Sindhu would travel to and fro for practice.
To make it easier on her, the family moved closer to the academy, and Sindhu’s mother took voluntary retirement. Of late, her father has also taken a break from work to be with her, especially during tournaments.
“I am very lucky that my parents know what being a sportsperson is about. They have always motivated me and kept me going through all my lows and losses,” says Sindhu, who also credits her coaches, prominent among whom is the legendary badminton star Pullela Gopichand.
Sindhu’s disciplined life allows little room for cheat days. But the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna awardee has no complaints. “Initially, no one thought I would be that big, so schooling was given equal importance, and following a regimen only made me a better player,” she says.
Soon, however, she became the centre of attention in her family and everyone – including her elder sister – uncomplainingly adjusted their lives around her schedule. “No one sees the 12–13 years of rigour. They only see the success,” says Sindhu, adding that she even had to give up junk food, though she enjoys Hyderabadi pani puri when she can.
When I ask Sindhu about the two distinct sides to her personality, she admits she had to work on her temperament to get into the zone for play. Coached by Gopichand, she would stand in the middle of the court and learn how to yell. Soon that came naturally to her and now, “it is almost second nature while playing”.
The game, she states, is as much about the mind as the body, and Sindhu has had to work hard on herself to outwit her opponents. As a teenager, she was not very aggressive, and losing points would unnerve her. “I had to strengthen my attitude, particularly in the run-up to the Olympics.”
Earlier prone to hurling her racket down in self-directed anger, she also had to learn to control her temper. “But my mindset has improved over the years. I have learnt that it is okay to let a point go and not brood over it.” She also does not allow a previous loss affect a current performance, though the pressure can be higher in such situations.
Brickbats tended to get Sindhu’s morale down too, until, one day, she talked to her father about dealing with criticism. “He told me just one thing: that the answer to everything was my racket.”
Sindhu had to answer haters not with words, but with her game.
The girl who once wanted to be a doctor when she grew up, now understands that she has to work hard just to maintain all that she has achieved, and even harder to surpass herself every day. “The main thing is to have confidence in yourself,” says the champ, who will participate in the National Championship this month, and the Premier Badminton League in late December. “I play knowing that I have to give my best, knowing that I have trained enough.”
(With excerpts from a conversation with Verve, June 2017.)
Mumbai-based Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena is the executive editor of India’s first and foremost lifestyle and luxury magazine, Verve, which completes 22 successful years this December. She is a keen follower of the world of the movies and sports, and loves interacting with people from diverse fields.
Photography by Pranjal K Jain
First published in the November 2017 issue of eShe magazine. Read it for free here.