Sporting world have been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic with almost every tournament either cancelled or posponed. The Tokyo Olympics was postponed till 2021 and there are murmurs that the Games may not be held next year if the world is unable to find a vaccine for the dreaded virus. Badminton is one of the sports to be affected the most by the pandemic with numerous events suspended.
The reigning queen of world badminton, PV Sindhu, in an exclusive interview with WION’s Sports Editor, Digvijay Singh Deo, opened up on life in lockdown, badminton post-lockdown, postponement of Tokyo Olympics, the rise of women’s badminton, the role of mental strength in the world of sports, and much more.
Digvijay Singh Deo: Sindhu, good to see you smiling as always, how have you been?
Sindhu: Well it has been nice actually because this experience is something completely new for me. Since I am usually travelling a lot, I don’t get to spend much time with my parents, so it is nice to be able to do that and learn new things. I’m trying to stay positive during the break, I understand that it can be difficult being locked indoors, but it has been a welcome break for me and I’m enjoying it.
DSD: Social distancing is extremely vital Sindhu but you also stay with elderly parents, so how are the daily essentials being managed at home?
Sindhu: We have actually been practising social distancing since I came back from England in early March. All of us stayed in separate rooms for 21 days and even now we are maintaining a considerable physical distance while we are inside the house. Initially, for those 21 days, I couldn’t even meet my nephew or sister in that period. Fortunately, we live in a gated society, so we do not need to leave our colony for any essential services.
DSD: Life as a badminton player is one of extreme practice, for you usually the day begins at 4:30 in the morning at times so how have you controlled that urge of staying indoors?
Sindhu: Well it is difficult to adjust to this new life.before the lockdown, my life revolved around training and playing tournaments. I obviously do not have the opportunity to train outdoors, but I am working on my physical fitness at home. My father helps me with my training at home and I am in constant touch with my trainer through video calls. Apart from that, I am trying to learn new skills and attempting to make the most of my time away from badminton. I am definitely missing the game and being out there on the court, but I understand the need of the hour is for people to stay at home. It is the right decision that has been taken by the government and we must adhere to their guidelines.
DSD: None of us has a choice at the moment Sindhu but has this period been of one of reflection for you. You still have a good many years ahead of you but its been a pretty impressive career so far, four straight finals in major tournaments and a first global title for Indian badminton…
Sindhu: I must say this lockdown is a welcome break. When I was 18 or 19, many people used to ask me whether I had a life away from badminton, since I was not able to do much else. So this break is giving me a taste of life on the other side and I’m happy to be able to spend quality time with my family.
DSD: Usually badminton players raise it a notch when a big tournament approaches, so right now with no tournament on the horizon how are you dealing with this period of uncertainty?
Sindhu: I think every athlete was working hard ahead of the Olympics because there were only a few months left for the showpiece event when the virus started to spread. I feel the correct decision was made regarding the Olympic postponement because we cannot endanger the health of so many people. I’m sure it is a problem for some of the athletes because it means restructuring your entire plan for the games. But we cannot control the prevailing situation and there is bound to be uncertainty in these times because we don’t know when badminton will resume. But athletes can still work on their physical fitness and remain focussed. It is important to stay in shape because once the sport resumes if it will be tough for players to perform well unless they have maintained their fitness.
DSD: You stay in a gated community, so are you managing to go for a run?
Sindhu: Yes, I have recently started going for a run inside my community, but have not stepped out of the society on to the main streets. When I returned from England, I was initially in self-isolation for 15 days, but then officials from the health department instructed me to remain indoors for five more days. I realised how important these precautionary measures were and followed the government’s guidelines. We have to ensure that we religiously follow the rules for our health as a society.
DSD: I did see you hitting the shuttle against the wall in an attempt to keep the skill levels up, is that the biggest worry of staying sharp till this lockdown ends…
Sindhu: I think the skill level of all badminton players is bound to go down because of the lack of training. But there are various exercises one can do stay sharp, these can be shadow practice sessions or wall exercises. It is important to not lose touch while playing with the shuttle. But overall, players will be a bit rusty when they return to the circuit and will take some time for all of us to perform at the top level.
DSD: As a badminton player and as an elite athlete what are the areas that you think all players will struggle when this period ends…
Sindhu: I think athletes will struggle, both in terms of fitness and skill. Players will need some amount of game training before they can get into the natural shot-making rhythm. Movement is crucial for badminton players and the mobility of the players will be affected post the lockdown. Our stamina levels will also go down because of the lack of on-court action. It will take time to build our endurance levels as well. There is, of course, some aspects of our game which we can work on indoors, but ultimately nothing can replace on-court training. So overall. I think it will be a mental, physical and skill-based challenge for all players when we return.
DSD: How long in your opinion will it take for the top athletes to return to their peak levels once the lockdown ends?
Sindhu: I think it will take a considerable amount of time. Every player has a distinct style of play, so the way they approach the game is different. Every player also has a different endurance level and that will determine how they deal with things once the lockdown ends. So there is no a specific time frame I can give in which the players will return to their peak levels, it completely depends on the fitness and ability of the player.
DSD: As a badminton player what are the precautions you would advise your fellow team-mates and even young players to follow.obviously the mandatory handshakes will have to go for the time being. as Rafael Nadal said even giving your best friend a hug when you see them after ages is not going to be allowed.
Sindhu: I think social distancing rules should be continued for an extended period of time, even in the world of sport. Pre-match and post-match handshakes should be avoided once sport resumes. We cannot take a casual approach towards the coronavirus even when it is safe to restart sporting activities. We must take basic precautionary measures like wearing masks or carrying hand sanitizer at all times with us. But most importantly our attitude towards the virus should not change once things start opening up, some precautions must be taken otherwise the virus will continue to spread.
DSD: For a majority of sportspersons across the world the big goal this year was the Olympic Games. You have fond memories of the Olympics of course and your track record in big tournaments is outstanding. So for you personally was the postponement a huge disappointment or had you mentally prepared yourself for the announcement given the situation?
Sindhu: When the virus started spreading rapidly and became a global threat, the thought did enter my mind that there was a possibility of the Olympics being postponed. So when the announcement was made, it wasn’t a complete shock. But at the same time, till the official announcement was made, I kept preparing for the July 2020 Olympics because you cannot afford to lose any time ahead of the biggest event in the sporting world. It was obviously the right decision because it is impossible to travel and hold tournaments during a global health crisis. Our rankings have also been frozen, and whatever decision the badminton world federation takes regarding the Olympic qualification will have to be respected.
DSD: There has been continuous messaging that the Olympics may not be held next year as well if the world is unable to find a vaccine. As an elite athlete how disturbing is that thought?
Sindhu: Yes it is difficult to process that if a vaccine does not come up, then the Tokyo Olympics might not even be held. But even if that is the case, our health always has to be the top priority. It is difficult to say what the global situation will be in a year, so things are very uncertain. As of now, we have no idea when the tournaments will begin. I don’t think the dates for any major event can be set in stone right now and we can only speculate. We must wait for the situation to improve. I believe the decision on the 2021 Olympics will also not be made until we have more clarity, which will obviously be sometime next year.
DSD: Every sport is different and has different preparations, Sindhu. The boxers usually are aggressive and have more swagger, from your experience in badminton what is the correct mental preparation for the Olympics and World Championships?
Sindhu: In a big tournament like the Olympics, mental preparation plays an even bigger role in your performance. Rest is also key in the Olympics because there can be lots of distractions when you’re playing at that level. There is also a lot of pressure. The approach to each game is different and you have to be confident of your abilities at that level. At the same time, one cannot be overconfident because every player aims to be at their peak during the showpiece event. So, each player has a different approach towards the Olympics, but hard-work and mental toughness are key.
DSD: Also just to follow up on that how important is mental toughness on the court? You obviously head into every match believing you could win but many a time the opponent goes on a deep run, so how do you stay in the game?
Sindhu: You cannot give up at any point during the match, one must have the confidence to turn things around at the top level. One the other hand, when you are leading, you can never get complacent and take your victory for granted. That is why your temperament plays a key role at the highest level. I always to aim to give my best as a player, winning and losing is secondary. My priority for every match is to go out there and give my absolute all for my country. There might be matches when a player performs brilliantly but falls to a defeat. There can even be occasions when luck doesn’t favour you, but what must stay consistent is the effort that you put into a match.
DSD: You had two high profile losses in the World Championship finals and I remember you in tears after losing to Carolina Marin in 2018 final. Yet when it came to 2019 final you absolutely thrashed Okuhara in the summit clash. What did you do differently?
Sindhu: I was desperate for the world championship title. Having lost 2 world championship finals I was determined to put my final blues behind me and was better prepared mentally and physically. I was actually prepared for a long match against Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara. I knew there would be a lot of pressure on me because of my past results, but I ensured that I turned everything out when I went on the court. From the first point in that match till the very last one, I gave my absolute all and that is why I was able to win in the manner that I did. That’s what made the victory so sweet.
DSD: There has been a slight dip in form in your performances since that world championship crown, was it expected given how much effort you put in to get that world title?
Sindhu: Losing is part of the game and I must learn from the mistakes I made after the world championships. I was definitely disappointed with my performances, but at the same time, I tried not to obsess over my form since that can have an adverse effect and further deteriorate my results. I have also learnt to accept the fact that I will lose some games, no player in the world is capable of winning every match. In 2020, I reached the quarter-final in a couple of tournaments and was building confidence ahead of the Olympics. Before the postponement announcement, I approached all tournaments that I played in as preparation for the Olympics. My ultimate goal remains to win a gold medal at the games. When I lose, I try not to get too disheartened and when I win, I do not allow myself to get complacent. It is important to keep your feet on the ground and never lose belief in yourself.
DSD: You constantly stay in touch with your fellow players, even those who are your immediate rivals and I still remember you on a see-saw with Yihan Wang the night of your Olympic final in Rio. How is the rest of the badminton world coping with this lockdown?
Sindhu: Yes I am in touch with many Indian sportspersons and inquire about their well-being. I spoke with Carolina Marin as well, since Spain was badly hit by the virus. I think the lockdown measures in most countries are the same. Marin is also staying indoors and trying to make the best of use of her time. It is good to see various athletes from all sports posting motivational videos on social media.
DSD: Right through last year we saw a bit of a gap opening up in women’s singles. There was Tai Tzu Ying who was dominating and there was very little to separate the next 7-8 players.Akane Yamaguchi, Okuhara, Ratchanok Intanon, the returning Marin, you. Is this the tightest field in women’s badminton that you have seen in your decade long career?
Sindhu: Even before the 2016 Olympics, the women’s game was very competitive, with a lot of top Chinese players. But since the 2016 Games, the level of competition has improved further. I think that is essential for the growth of women’s badminton. As you said, it is great that any of the top ten players can beat each other on their day and all of them are capable of winning big tournaments. The pace of the game has also changed, it has become faster and more intense. Also, all top players have a different style of play, which is great for the game. Tai Tzu Ying is a very wristy, skilful player while Marin has a powerful attacking game. The level of competition is very high and hopefully, it will continue for a long time.
DSD: You have had some great matches against Tai Tzu. You beat her at the Rio Olympics but she then went on a run against you.now when the losses pile up how do you keep believing that I can beat her. Ultimately you beat her at two of the biggest tournaments that matter, the world tour finals in 2018 and then the world championship last year…
Sindhu: Yes it has been a very tough battle against her over the years. That world championship quarter-final victory last year gave me a lot of confidence to go on and win the whole tournament. I came back from a set down and eventually prevailed after the scores were locked at 19 all in the deciding set. Winning such a tight affair against a player like Tai Tzu Ying was really a turning point for me.
DSD: Of all these players I mentioned though who is the most difficult to play against where you know that you have no breathing space and that every shot has to be perfect.
Sindhu: I think every player presents a different challenge. But yes Tai Tzu Ying can produce that moment of magic at any point during the match, she is so skilful. Even Ratchanak Intanon is a very challenging player to face. The top ten are all players of the highest order and even one mistake can lead to a defeat. Every point in a match is crucial regardless of the quality of the opponent.
DSD: Time to wind this down. What is on your bucket list the moment the lockdown is lifted and we can safely get on with our lives?
Sindhu: I just want to be back on the court and start playing badminton again, as simple as that.