PV Sindhu interview: the making of a badminton superstar

Following on from her interview in January on the growth in popularity of women’s badminton, the newly-crowned YONEX Sunrise India Open champion PV Sindhu once again sits down with Gruffudd Owen to discuss how her life has changed since her Rio heroics 

No sporting event on earth has the power to utterly transform an athlete’s life the way an Olympic Games does.

The FIFA World Cup may trump all as the biggest sporting spectacle on the planet, but the team that emerges victorious every four years consists, virtually without exception, of global stars well accustomed to the triumphant hoisting of silverware.

As for rugby union’s equivalent competition, the All Blacks who were awarded the William Webb Ellis Cup two years ago had already secured legendary status with their success on home turf in 2011.

Achieving greatness at the Olympics, however, is different. While the majority of competitors who enter the Games are recognisable on a mere local level or within the confines of their own sport, it can take just two short weeks to propel an athlete’s modest career into the realm of superstardom, changing their lives forever.

Just ask India’s PV Sindhu.

Prior to the 2016 Games, the 21-year-old shuttler was very much in the shadow of fellow countrywoman Saina Nehwal. With an Olympic bronze medal to her name from London 2012 – not to mention a Commonwealth Games gold and a World Championships silver – Nehwal was the undisputed queen bee of women’s badminton in India, with the country’s hopes of another podium finish in Rio resting firmly on her shoulders.

But while Nehwal’s hopes were scuppered by injury, it was Sindhu’s performances that stunned India. Making it all the way to the women’s singles final, the Hyderabadi came home with a silver medal – her country’s highest-ever finish in an Olympic badminton tournament.

A cornucopia of accolades soon followed, including the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna (India’s highest sporting honour), land grants from local Indian governments, and prize cheques totaling millions of US dollars. The Hyderabad District Badminton Association also threw in a brand-new BMW for good measure.

Sindhu’s time had come.

Not that her path to the top was an easy one to navigate, as she is keen to point out.

“It was very difficult,” Sindhu explains.

“Everyone thinks, ‘She got an Olympic medal, it must have been easy for her’, but before that it took me 14 years to get where I am today.

“I started playing at the age of eight and a half, and I worked hard from day one.

“Nobody at that time thought I’d get a silver medal at the Olympics or that I’d become No. 1 in India.

“For me, it was just a case of playing and seeing how far I could go.”

It goes without saying that life is a little different for Sindhu now she has an Olympic medal to her name.

Whereas previously she would walk the streets in peace and quiet, since Rio she has become a sporting sensation, even in a country where cricket remains by some distance the national obsession.

“My life has changed a lot,” she admits.

“If anything, I’ve become too busy now! Everyone recognises me everywhere, especially when I go to the shopping mall. I very rarely go there now.

“I don’t get much free time – I’m travelling all the time. But I’ve been getting lots of letters saying congratulations and everything, and everyone has been praying for me.

“A big thanks to everyone out there who supported me.”

Of course, talk in India now centres on the birth of a Sindhu-Saina rivalry.

There is a national acceptance that the power dynamics in Indian women’s badminton have shifted since Sindhu’s Rio success.

No longer is she the understudy striving to emulate her more experienced compatriot. Sindhu now stands as an equal to Saina – and if the current world rankings are anything to go by, she can even lay claim to being India’s best in her own right.

There are hopes that with two world-class players at the top of the women’s game, a Sindhu-Saina rivalry can be the catalyst for an exciting new era in Indian badminton.

But amid such chatter, how does Sindhu view her relationship with Nehwal?

“It’s not a rivalry per se, but on court it’s obviously a case of one having to win and the other having to lose,” she reveals.

“Off court, we’re just normal friends.

“But there’s always this buzz whenever I play against Saina with everyone calling it a rivalry.

“We’ve played against each other in league matches in Hyderabad and all across India.

“At the Premier Badminton League (PBL) in January, everyone wanted that match to happen and finally it did happen.

“That buzz is always there, but the most important thing is keeping calm among all the hype and carrying on.”

That Sindhu was part of the victorious Chennai Smashers franchise at the PBL shows that she hasn’t let her Olympic heroics distract her from achieving further success in her career.

Having beaten former world No. 1 and Olympic gold medalist Carolina Marin to lift the YONEX Sunrise India Open title on Sunday – her home tournament and the second Superseries event of the 2017 season – Sindhu will also be aiming to better her semi-final finish at last year’s World Superseries Finals if she manages to qualify for Dubai this time round.

A challenge no doubt – especially considering her phenomenal breakthrough last year – but such is Sindhu’s self-belief that you wouldn’t put it past her to reach even loftier heights in 2017.

“Last year was a great year for me,” she says.

“My silver medal at the Rio Olympics was a dream come true. It totally changed my life, and everything changed in India too after that.

“The start of 2017 has also been good. I’m at a career-best world No. 5, and I hope to go even further. I’ve been improving year by year.

“This is only the start for me.”