As a kid she was nervous and unable to control tears in the face of defeat. To receive Padma Shri, she needed special exemption from exams. Swaroop Swaminathan tracks how training in wee hours and support from significant others helped PV Sindhu reach Olympic podium
There is a story that Vimala Reddy likes to narrate whenever close friends ask her about PV Sindhu, and the one characteristic trait that explains the shuttler best. “This happened in 2014,” she says with a glint in her eyes.
“It was during one of the big ticket events in New Delhi. This particular meet clashed with her (second year) year-end exams, but she didn’t want to skip one for the other.” What Sindhu did was amazing. “She would play a match in New Delhi one day, catch a flight to Hyderabad, land in the wee hours, and prepare till the bell at the exam centre was rung. Three hours later, her parents would again take her to the airport and put her on the first available flight back to Delhi. She did this for three exams and five days straight.”
There are no prizes for guessing what she did in the tournament. She was the losing finalist! Many Indian sportspersons have dropped out of school or college to pursue their calling, but Sindhu’s battles on a 20-foot by 44-foot badminton court wouldn’t be complete without retelling a few tricky situations she has found herself in because of her insistence in completing her graduation at the first time of asking.
The weeks leading up to her receiving the Padma Shri from the President in 2015 was one such. Having already missed the opportunity once (she won the Arjuna Award in 2013, but had to skip the ceremony as she was playing in the final of the Indian Badminton League), she was determined not to miss out a second time. But a problem presented itself. One of Sindhu’s final year B Com exams at St Ann’s Degree College for Women was happening on the same day she was supposed to receive the award.
As Sindhu’s batch was still under Osmania University (it was granted autonomy in the year 2014), she would have had to wait a full six months to appear in the supplementary exam. Vimala, who has seen Sindhu up close since 2010 in her capacity as a Physical Education lecturer at the same college, picks up the story. “Her father (PV Ramana), mother (Vijaya), myself and Gopi (coach Pullela Gopichand) all wanted her to go and receive the award from Pranab Mukherjee. Our reasoning was she had missed it once, so she shouldn’t miss it another time. But she wasn’t easily convinced.
“She had already begun preparing for her exams when we decided to try our luck. So we drafted a letter to the vicechancellor of Osmania University and it worked. The college received a letter a few days later, allowing Sindhu to go ahead, with the option of giving her test as soon as she came back.” Of course, she sat for the exam. Her overall aggregate over three years was 62 per cent, which is rather good considering how she used to study for her exams.
“She would invariably not be able to attend classes like a normal student because of her international events, and training at the academy,” Vimala remembers. “So a few weeks before exams, she would come to the college, sit in the staff room and be taught by all lecturers. Everything in one go.” She became a graduate, and without wasting further time, enrolled in a twoyear MBA programme at the same institution. Her second year classes began last Friday. She obviously had to miss it. She had just got into the final of the Olympic Games.
The 21-year-old shuttler has been brought to life this week as a quiet person. As someone who is more than happy to stay behind the scenes. However, Sikki Reddy, one of Sindhu’s closest friends and a national level badminton player, paints a completely different picture. It’s fair to say that the 2013 World Championship bronze medallist had her fair share of fun while growing up at the academy. “Both of us enjoyed pranking others,” Sikki says.
“We used to put white powder on our faces, apply some Colgate red tooth paste and go to our juniors’ rooms dressed as ghosts to scare them.” If the pair, who first saw each other when Sindhu was seven years old, weren’t playing make believe ghosts, they were watching ghosts on television. “We would be watching horror films on TV, but the thing was both of us would get scared. So scared that we wouldn’t even get up to go to the wash basin. We would end up calling our seniors who would escort us. Those days, when Sindhu used to stay at the academy, used to be great fun.”
Having seen Sindhu grow up — both literally as well as figuratively — in the last 14 years, Sikki knows more than most about how far the Hyderabadi girl has come. Her mental transformation from giant-killer to a giant is not yet complete, but it’s staggering to learn that India’s lone women’s Olympic silver medallist used to cry as a child whenever things went against her on the field of play. “Her performances in the junior age categories were a mixed bag,” Sikki, 23, says. “She was more than capable of beating an extraordinary player, but was equally capable of losing to some (random) player. I would actually say she used to be childish on court. For example, if she knew that she was losing a ma tch, she would cry on court.”
Cry baby conqueror
That itself may not be much, but considering Sindhu is still very young — it is still illegal for her to drink liquor in New Delhi — the work she has put in on the mental aspect of the sport is remarkable. Sikki has a theory for how she went from bawling to destroying the likes of Wang Yihan. “Ramana, Vijaya and Gopi sir,” comes the response immediately.
“Her parents and the coaches did a lot of work, and that is how she is mentally stronger.” Even as Sikki is talking, there is an announcement that says the Telangana Sports Writers Association will felicitate Sindhu for her achievements in Rio de Janeiro. “When I see pictures of Sindhu and me together, I start laughing. She used to be tiny, but now, she has really grown up... I am extremely proud of her.”
Girl next door
Eighty-six year old N Ramanathan is in control of the TV remote. All members of the clan want to watch the same thing, but the octogenarian isn’t taking chances. There are similar scenes unfolding in various houses at Marredpally, a suburb in Secunderabad. But Ramanathan’s voice carries weight in that community — he happens to be the area’s welfare association secretary. His name has appeared in various letters to the editors columns, and has been kn own to take up issues for the betterment of society.
However, this particular evening, he doesn’t need to tell anyone what to do. They are all watching Sindhu, a former resident of Marredpally. “I don’t know much about the girl (Sindhu), but I do know that her family stayed here for many years,” he says. “And as Marredpallieans, the local community cheered her throughout the Olympics.”
Sindhu and her family moved to an apartment near Gachibowli, an area that hosts a plethora of Fortune 500 companies, to be nearer to the Gopichand Academy. They have since moved out to a bigger place, but a neighbour remembers this about Sindhu. “She doesn’t really have the airs of an international star,” Ganesh Venkatraman opines. “I have not talked much with her — our interaction has been limited to cursory greetings in the lift — but she is a very friendly girl, who likes playing with kids. She just minds her own business.”
Putting the hard yards in training has earned Sindhu rave reviews, but people have mentioned her formative years in Marredpally as one of the big reasons for her success. Even as a 12-year-old, training at the academy was her holy grail, and everything else took a backseat. Reaching the academy was an excursion in itself. Ramana and his daughter would leave their house by 3 am to get to the training centre by 4. Classes would start by 4.15 am. After training, she would take the shuttle back home, before going to Auxilium High School in Mahendra Hills. That’s about 60-70 kilometres of travel in the first four hours of the day. That was the routine Sindhu followed most days a week for a half-a-dozen years to get to where she has.
Pillars of strength
During the felicitation at the academy on Monday, one word keeps coming up constantly: sacrifice. Starting from Ramana, who had to take leave from work to realise Sindhu’s dream, and Vijaya, who retired from Railways to look after her daughter. Hence, it’s no surprise to see the parents being treated as rockstars by both local as well as national TV news channels. They are more than happy to oblige, but don’t want the narrative to change. “We are not the story. We just did what parents should. Sindhu is the real story.”
While they are talking, Gopichand makes an important revelation in the press conference. “I was tempted to retire (completely from the sport) after winning the All England Championships (in 2001). But I stayed on. I wanted to retire after Saina’s (Nehwal) bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics, but again, I stayed on. After this (Sindhu’s silver), I don’t know. But I think I will stay, as there is renewed energy to push on from here.”
Sacrifice. It’s the overriding theme of the function. Gopichand did not allude to Sindhu’s tears as a child, but he did make the point that he was quietly confident his ward had the cojones to deliver at the crunch. “Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had a hunch that she would deliver when it was required. She has the potential to be head and shoulders above everyone else in 10 years’ time. I think she had the belief this time. A lot of players have the weapons and the big game, but crack under pressure. I am extremely happy that Sindhu did not.”
New role model
The academy itself looks like it has received a new coat of varnish, following Sindhu’s achievements. Kids, some even shorter than your average shuttle racquet, have turned up to watch the ceremony. They are all wearing customised T-shirts celebrating India’s first silver medal winner in the sport. A few of them want to become like her. A few others want to have a hit with her in the near future. Different ambitions, but it’s quite clear to see she has got the next generation hooked. Just like Sania Nehwal did after her bronze in 2012.
Sindhu has also got a few followers in China. One only needs to go to Weibo, a Chinese micro- blogging website, to confirm that. Nobody gets the sport quite like them, and folks there have been discussing her. The news of her victory over (Nozomi) Okuhara of Japan in the semifinal has been shared and liked more than a few times.