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PV Sindhu a Medal Prospect at Tokyo Olympics Despite a Tough Field, Akane Yamaguchi and Nozomi Okuhara’s Home Advantage: Aparna Popat

PV Sindhu (AFP Photo)

PV Sindhu (AFP Photo)

PV Sindhu bagged the silver medal at the Rio Olympics in 2016 after she lost to Carolina Marin in the final.

Pusarla Sindhu has truly kept India’s tricolour flying high in the World badminton scene. For long, the attention was much riveted on Saina Nehwal who was the indisputable trailblazer in the context of taking on the mighty from the dragon countries, and to an extent from Continental Europe. But  Sindhu, following her sterling displays in the World Championship and World Tour Finals and other BWF events has captured the imagination of the Indians and the  fierce and ambitious competitors from Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea and, Olympic Champion Spain’s Carolina Marin. The Tokyo Olympics is upon the sporting world; the International Olympic Committee and the Local Organising Committee in Japan, and the Japanese Government, quite determined to go ahead with the Summer Games, in spite of the country presently being in a state of partial emergency because of the Coronavirus pandemic.

From India’s point of view, Sindhu has the right to fancy her chances of a podium finish, in fact dream for a gold medal to improve on the silver she won at Rio de Janeiro, losing to Carolina in the final five years ago. The champion from Spain, Carolina, tore her Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) in early June and will not figure in the women’s singles draw at Tokyo. Her absence has thrown open the field for another dozen players to look at winning the gold medal. The contenders are Taiwan’s Tai Tzu Ying, Japan’s Nozomi, Okuhara and Akane Yamaguchi, China’s Chen Yu Fei and HE Bing Jiao, Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon, South Korea’s Sung Jihyun and An Seyong and a number of players with great skill sets and stamina.

Sindhu has played about 200 odd matches after the Rio final in 2016, winning 152 and losing 59. The discerning acknowledge the feats achieved by her winning bronze, silver and bronze medals in the World Championships, silver at Rio, at  the last Asian Games in Indonesia and the Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast. The Gold Medal at the 2019 World Championship in Basel was a massive feat, but her inability to score consistently against Tai Tzu Ying, Carolina Marin, Akane Yamaguchi, Nozomi Okuhara, Chen Yu Fei and Jihyun Sung, often crops up in the badminton grapevine. Aparna Popat, Double Olympian, four-time medalist at the Commonwealth Games, believes Sindhu is a big match player and should be counted as a medal prospect at Tokyo.

Excerpts from an interview to News18.com:

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India would be looking at Sindhu in the Women’s singles. Saina was not lucky to make the Tokyo cut. What would you like to say about Sindhu. She won the silver at Rio de Janeiro in 2016. She lost to Carolina Marin in the final.

One thing that has to be taken into account is that over the years Sindhu has not been focussed on collecting many number of titles (in BWF tournaments), but she has collected the big titles and reached the finals. What has to be seen is her preparation for the Olympics. She has beaten most of the other players before, and we also know that she is capable of beating them in Tokyo.

Carolina is not going to be in Tokyo. So that eases up the draw. But having said that, there are other players who are experienced enough. To make things a little worse, Japan’s top two singles players, Akane Yamaguchi and Nozomi Okuhara, will have the home advantage. And Sindhu has had tough matches against these two Japanese girls. I think everyone in the top eight or nine will have tough matches against each other. Ratchanok (Intanon) has been playing well. We never know what Tai Tzu Ying will come up with. The Chinese girls are there. Everything will come down to the preparation.

Because of the pandemic, it’s been so uncertain, not only for themselves (players), but for everyone. More than ever. The question is who has played in competitions and stuck to her preparation and practice. Finally the chances of course will depend on the draw and how each one plays and handles the pressure.

There could be challenges from Thailand’s Ratchanok, China’s Chen Yu Fei, South Korea’s An Se Young and many more. Has Sindhu plateaued?

The women’s singles is going to be a tough field. It’s easy to speculate on Sindhu’s data and tournament performances, because that’s all we have. But at the end of the day if the player says “I am feeling confident”, I think the benefit of the doubt should go to the player. If she says she is training well and feeling confident, let’s hope for the best and be as optimistic as we can.

So what can be close to an ideal preparation in these unprecedented times?

One plans the training and peaking in a particular manner. No two players will have an identical plan. It depends on the fitness and other aspects. You add the COVID mix and it gets complicated. There were lockdown issues that prevented training within India and traveling from India for tournaments overseas. Saina and Srikanth suffered because of this. So the ideal is to stick to your plan. If Sindhu has managed to stick to her plan, I think. That’s the best we can hope for.

But there is nothing better than playing tournaments.

Yes, ideally one would want to play in tournaments, test the waters and test yourself and also look at opponents. Maybe not close to the Olympics, but slightly before. It was a big risk to travel some days ago. If anything had happened, then you would be writing off everything. Viktor Axelsen (reportedly tested positive for COVID in May during the European Championship) was lucky as he has seemingly recovered well but there was a risk.

So how can the players ascertain their fitness?

They have no choice but to do it in practice. They have to simulate situations while training and practicing. Tai Tzu said she played with the men’s singles players last year and simulated situations. I believe our players’ preparation includes simulating match situations too.

How can this be done by the Indians who have qualified for the Olympics?

They could be playing 2 against 1, 3 against 1, or even play matches against different local players and practice partners. I am sure they must be getting some top players to practice. While it would never be exactly like a match situation but that is the best possible way.

There were high hopes of Sindhu winning the All England, she couldn’t?

It’s okay. We always want an Indian to win a tournament. That goes without saying. Expectations are good, sitting outside. We did not expect her to play the way she did and win the silver at the Rio Olympics, though we knew she was capable of it. And we were extremely happy. So sometimes we expect something and they surpass it and achieve below that. But that’s sport all about…right! We always hope for the best and peg our own expectations. It’s a question of points here and there

Does Sindhu give you the hint that she can will have a podium finish in Tokyo?

I have not seen her in action in recent times. Seeing her in a tournament would be the best way to judge a player. I have seen her play after Rio, but not in the last four months to see her progression like what she has been doing to build herself up. Even the Indian Open was cancelled. The last few months has gone haywire. In conclusion I would say she is a medal potential for sure, but the field is the same and the field would be tough. I would give home advantage to the Japanese girls.  Akane Yamaguchi and Nozomi Okuhara will be familiar with the surroundings, they would be practising on the same courts. They would have the advantage of the climate, food, home supporters etc.

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first published:July 01, 2021, 10:08 IST