PV Sindhu: A raging bull in Chinese shop

PV Sindhu has emerged as a worrisome nemesis for her counterparts from China, so much so that she has busted their monopoly.

It was four years ago, and 800 kms away from the site of PV Sindhu’s recent stomping ground, Fuzhou, where the Indian had created the first ripple in the Chinese ocean of shuttle talent. Her opponent in 2012 at Changzhou’s China Masters was the then newly crowned Olympic champion Li Xuerui whom Sindhu packed off in a blitzy 45-minute three-setter.

The Chinese should’ve known that September that Sindhu from Yindu (their name for India) was going to prove to be an almighty headache for them in the coming years. Never mind that it took four years for the Indian to camp at another eastern coastal city and claim a Chinese title beating one of their own. The following seasons of 2013 and 2014, the 21-year-old caused serious damage at the World Championships, beating the remaining two towers guarding Chinese dominance. Wang Shixian and Wang Yihan were at the receiving end of a belligerent Sindhu in back-to-back meets – a fearless string of performances, undaunted by either aura or superior skills of the Chinese champions.

Sindhu soon picked a reputation of being an audacious upstart, with a particular relish for mopping up the Chinese in draws, neutralising the bellicose game of Wang Yihan, a particularly unbeatable player for shuttlers around the world.

Xinhua had written after one of the more bruising losses Sindhu handed out at the Worlds: “Eleventh seed Sindhu P. V. of India caused a huge upset with her aggressive style, beating second seed Wang Shixian.” The words, ‘giant-killing credentials rocked again’ and ‘sensation,’ were thrown liberally, even as Sindhu told the Chinese reporters: “When playing with players older than me, I always have a good mindset. If I lose, I consider it a learning process.”At the Denmark Open in 2015, Chinese head coach Li Yongbo would station a coach to furiously jot down notes as mini-cams recorded Sindhu’s game from multiple angles. Saina Nehwal had eked out gritty wins against the Chinese in the past, but Sindhu was rattling them like never before – and on the biggest stages.

“They’ve always been scared of her because she’s tall and aggressive,” says coach Madhumita Bisht, who’s watched the face-offs from the best seat in the world. “The fact that despite being tall and having the reach, she also moves well makes her dangerous. And she’s never shown nerves against the Chinese. Now she’s got patience also – it’s a deadly combination,” she adds.

Sindhu’s conquest on Sunday – the 6-footer Sun Yu was handpicked to do much the same for China, but it’s been a difficult graph for her. “She’s better than many because she makes finals regularly, but she’s definitely not the future of Chinese badminton,” says Indian former international and coach Aravind Bhat. Unless she sorts out her body mass-density (the large frame makes her movements lumbering), she’ll find it difficult to crack the wild burst of talent that is currently women’s singles. Sindhu’s fitness and strokemaking were clearly better than the World No 9, the best Chinese on the circuit right now.

That’s good bounty collected from beating big names from the Chinese recent past and the upcoming future. And Sindhu loves her routine when she travels to Far East bastions of badminton. The Indian contingent usually sniffs out an eating place in the first two days and sticks to the same safe menu every dinner. Sindhu though, has picked a few trends having travelled so extensively through badminton’s buzz land. Like the Taiwanese beverage Bubble Milk Tea. “She’s crazy about it and keeps having it night and day. She loves coming to China for that,” Bisht says. On Sunday it was China’s World No 9 for lunch, washed down with her favourite chewy tapioca bubbles.

She’s burst a few bubbles on the circuit, following in Saina Nehwal’s footsteps – capping her Olympics medal with a Super Series title the same season just like her senior. Sindhu’s coaches have worked harder to ensure she continues to enjoy the game, and no burn outs happen.

“As coach I don’t want to name tournaments. Next she has to go to Hong Kong, adapt to fast courts. The process is important. The titles will come if she sticks to basics and remains hardworking,” Gopichand says, adding people tend to forget she’s only 21.

Bisht remembers how she had to be dragged away earlier to practice or back to her room, because she’d chat endlessly with players on the circuit. Immensely social off-court and a far cry from her snarling aggro when she’s in the middle of a match, Sindhu is quite popular on the circuit and great friends with several Chinese and other players on tour and part of Facebook and Whatsapp groups, getting plenty of mentions on Weibo.

Bisht has noticed though, how after the Olympics, Sindhu doesn’t need to be told to cut short conversations when it’s time to train. “Her father’s travelling with her and he gets restless when she gets prattling with her ‘international friends.’ But we were surprised when she bought into the discipline on her own,” the coach says. “She’s just a girl, and when I travel with her, I insist on letting her do things that make her happy. Badminton’s tough on court, so best to keep her happy off it. She loves nail art, and I join in,” says senior coach Bisht, who’s travelled with her ever since her early teens.

Even while Sindhu went chomping on the young Chinese this week, it could be said that the giant called Chinese badminton isn’t quite sleeping, only catnapping – wriggling its arms restlessly even, during that snooze. But shuttle’s powerhouse is certainly seeing a temporary lull in its dominance of women’s singles with PV Sindhu offering a hugely altered scenario to half a decade ago – with that commanding win over local hope Sun Yu in the finals of the China Open Super Series Premier.

It was manifest in how the Chinese coaching bench on the sidelines with former Olympic silver medallist Chen Jin, couldn’t remedy Sun Yu’s faltering game and were left frowning and clutching their chins in helplessness as the tall tower failed to win her sixth tournament final of 2016. Sun told Xinhua: “Maybe I’m not patient enough, especially when my energy declined in the third set. Sindhu’s had a big change in these two years. She has become more aggressive and confident.”

The other tall experiment Han Li hasn’t quite made a mark on the circuit either. Sun Yu is the highest ranked Chinese currently and in an outlandish year when no one from badminton’s superpower won a medal in women’s singles at the Rio Olympics – and no gold for the first time since Atlanta 20 years ago – Sindhu’s title victory defeating a Chinese in China is worth a quick celebration of India’s relative rise in the pecking order.

It started when former world champions Shixian Wang and Yihan Wang retired post Olympics, and the London gold medallist Xuerui Li, who retired from the Rio bronze playoff due to a knee injury, stepped back from the circuit. Sun Yu – groomed to take over from her seniors for the past couple of years, has met with occasional success but can’t boast of that stranglehold of domination that the earlier players enjoyed on their rivals.

Sun had told Xinhua ahead of the Sindhu final: “Now many veterans have retired from national team, which is a natural alteration and I want to take more responsibility to pick up the torch. That is my target but saying is always easier. I need to win more games.”

Li Yongbo, the Chinese national team coach was forced to reassure a worried Chinese media soon after the Olympics: “The younger generation are strong and talented but inexperienced. I believe they’ll become excellent players and have stable performances after one season or two.”

Spanish Carolina Marin no doubt scythed through the might of the Chinese (who till her arrival always occupied the World Championship / No 1 / Olympic pedestals, all at once), but credit is due to Saina Nehwal who first started scribbling on their clean sheets right from her Indonesian Open title in 2010 when she beat a couple of their top players before winning the title.

Over the last two years however, challengers have proliferated opening up multi-pronged fronts against the Chinese bunch. When Saina Nehwal won the China Open in 2014 – she had beaten three youngsters Suo Di, Quin Jinjing and Liu Xin on the way, and she enjoyed a healthy 6-1 head to head against Sun Yu; numbers that were usually associated with the erstwhile Chinese champs.

The erstwhile ‘civil wars’ – as the Chinese news agency Xinhua called matches between two Chinese at international meets – have come down considerably in the last season. The seniors that Nehwal couldn’t quite dominate – Sindhu evicted at the big global meets with gusto.

However, no one’s foolish enough to pronounce China in decline. They’ve unearthed He Bingjiao – a left-handed genius, though still a quirk in progress. Apart from the southpaw angles, she glides smoothly on court, and is rated highly by Indian head coach P Gopichand. “It’s a temporary blip for China. He Bingjiao is good,” he says pithily.

Given China’s preponderance of physically superior specimens to be unleashed on the international circuit – and terribly fit players, a new crop is not difficult to raise given the strict system. In fact, some of their teens – and Sun Yu even – are good enough to beat most of the Top 10 players. Chen Yufei was recently crowned the Junior World Champion, and Bingjiao herself – just 19 – has two titles already. London Games winner – and post-comeback Li Xuerui 2.0 – their all-rounder with classical temperament, will be expected to return and cause plenty of problems, even as the teens gain experience to come upto the class of their seniors.

But for the moment, and on a day when Sindhu beat Sun Yu, India has its snout ahead of China in women’s singles – something unthinkable till two years ago.