November 30, 2023

World Tour Finals Preview: PV Sindhu, recharged and battle ready

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With the Indian having played more matches than other top players, taking a break last year was a wise decision.

Carolina Marin (50 total) played 24 tournaments fewer than PV Sindhu (74) for four whole seasons from 2016 to 2019. That’s an average of 6 less than the Indian every year. Add to that the air-travel time hopping countries and the official tour’s media and sponsorship commitments, which can be a drain on energy reserves.

Marin missed three of those year-end season finales (in 2017, 18, 19) either from injury or not qualifying. Sindhu played each of the four, making two finals and winning once. For the top players in shuttle, the big tournaments to peak are either the quadrennial Olympics or the annual World Championships. Marin, made it to two of those (2016 & 2018), though she’s a triple World Champion from 2014 & 15, and unarguably the greatest female shuttler if Majors are considered. Sindhu is 4/4 (Olympics and three World C’ships) at the majors finals, winning once.

The Indian avoided Marin in the group draw at World Tour Finals, the season finale, which begins on Wednesday. Sindhu has World No.1 Tai Tzu Ying (Chinese Taipei), home favourite Ratchanok Intanon and Pornpawee Chochuwong. Sindhu’s nowhere near her best – nor expected to be if the Olympics are the target as she will want to peak in Tokyo.

Not getting injured — Marin was away at least for 14 months from different injuries including a serious ACL — might seem one right curse, because of the overall break the medical attention can afford. Sindhu told ESPN recently about a shoulder overuse condition.

The fact that she hadn’t taken a break through the countless niggles that she might’ve endured, and kept her date with the Major finals means she ran herself ragged, showing physical commitment to the competitive circuit. Though she was off-colour during the 2018 Commonwealth Games from a foot injury, she made the individual finals. Add to that her Uber Cup load, the Indian Nationals where it’s obligatory to play and the PBL, which rakes in the dough, and Sindhu’s played more badminton than any other shuttler in the world in the four year period.

Akane Yamaguchi clocked 76 tournaments, but failed to make the World’s finals (which can be unbearable pressure on its own), and had a string of first round losses, for half a year, nursing her back. Both Nozomi Okuhara and Tai Tzu Ying have had time off to recalibrate their pacing, while Sindhu was slaving away incredulously at tournaments.

So it must be amusing for Sindhu to listen to commentators questioning her two-month light training in England, where she spent her initial days at a nutrition facility.

If anyone had earned a two-and-half month time off training and competition, it was PV Sindhu, and grudging her that in the middle of a pandemic, can count as cruel. That she had kept up her fitness workload at home under the relentless gaze of her father, and had the Indian coaches and federation in the loop during her training in England, means it’s two months well spent, taking a mental break, even if she did nothing but toss the shuttle and watch its flight.

If she was escaping distractions or sheer restrictive ennui of lockdown in India, all the more reason to be grateful for the rapidly planned trip. The badminton court can do with a Sindhu, 26 now, who’s more assertive in making her decisions, travels by herself not needing to be chauffeured by parents and simply pauses from the sport, without getting injured. Remember this was a reticent player who needed to be taught how to scream on a badminton court, and for one whole set in the Rio final, looked like she could carry off a decent impersonation of aggression.

Five years on, hungry for what she missed in Rio, Sindhu builds up her own appetite for a fight and fuels her own decibel. Pieces of her game jigsaw can fall into place in the coming months.

Marin unstoppable

Carolina Marin has had a tough year. She lost her father, ended a relationship, missed out on the last World Championship after a wincing injury and surgery and has matured through this indescribable loss and strife. She put in 10 hours a day on rehab with an earpiece plugged in, before she returned to the court.

She’s always driven herself to training, living near the national centre in Madrid, while home was coastal Huelva, so independence isn’t something that she needed to learn. But loss of motivation after the Rio gold was real. Then the knee snapped with a crack.

Marin literally has two different psychologists – Maria Martinez for her game and Fany Barembaumgor her personal life. Turning 27 last year, she told Spain’s El Pais media about seeing a psychologist since 15, to blend into the game. “In the end you play the way you are, there are things I needed to know about myself, externalise emotions, get them out from inside because sometimes you have a lot of poison inside and you need to get it out and free yourself of it,” she said.

Delving into her life, Marin told El Pais about having fewer friends than fingers on one hand, not having time to meet new people, being difficult because of the time she spends in the gym or travelling, being “irascible and hyperactive” and not being able to stand herself at times, also bringing problems upon herself.

When asked: On a scale of 1-10 how much does Carolina Marin love Carolina Marin?

“Not much. A 6 or 7. I always put everyone else before myself. And that’s good for some things, but for others not so much.”

Her post-retirement dreams consist of being “bored for the first time in my life”, and wearing 10cm heels that she has stocked in a closet and keeps looking at to make herself happy, she tells El Pais.

Called the golden generation of women’s singles, the current Top 10 have barely caught their breath till this pandemic year, busy as they were in raising the stature of the game, playing one classic after another. Akane Yamaguchi was thrilled to make a Snowman and play with Lego sets this Christmas, away from the training grind.

Stomping in her flat trainers and shoes on court though, Carolina Marin has returned as a speedier demon, winning the year’s first two tournaments without dropping a set.

She has baited Tai Tzu Ying by saying the Taipese will need to “change to beat me.”

Tai Tzu was rattled into unforced errors, struggling to handle Marin’s smashes, saying, “She’s very fast and I’ll try to keep up.”

Korean An Se-Young attacked her backhand backcourt but was battered in both semis, saying: “Marin is fast and her style is attacking. I tried to respond to her smashes and tried everything I wanted to. Unfortunately, it didn’t go quite so well.”

Okuhara too tried to pin Marin back with her defensive clears, yo-yoing her front and back, but Marin has only returned faster than before, plus skilled at the net.

That she can maintain the speed till the end has wiped off the rest of the world’s challenge. She remains Sindhu’s last citadel in a major tournament.

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