she is just 24. And despite her already stunning achievements, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu's best is likely yet to come.
Though she had reached the finals of the Badminton World Federation's (BWF) World Championships twice before-in 2017 and 2018-she lost on both those occasions. This time around, on August 25, 2019, it took her all of 37 minutes to become the first Indian world champion in the sport. On the day, noting she was the third female player to ever reach the BWF championship final three times in a row, the knowledgeable crowd at St Jakobshalle arena in Basel, Switzerland, egged her on, believing she richly deserved to be the winner. And that her victory came outplaying Japan's Nozomi Okuhara-ranked No. 4 in the world, to whom Sindhu lost the 2017 final at Glasgow, in Scotland-must have made the victory that much sweeter.
"When the match got over, I said [to myself], 'Okay, it's is over'," says Sindhu. "I was calm, and I did not shout. It was a special moment for me-I had done it! After the last point, I had tears in my eyes. Finally, after four attempts [at becoming world champion, counting the Rio Olympics], I had done it!" Sindhu recalls the immense satisfaction she felt that day, her crowning moment of glory, when she stood tall on the court, looking skywards, with both hands raised. For Sindhu, this is a fresh start. She has her sights set higher still-on the glittering gold at the Tokyo Olympics next year.
With this win, Sindhu's fifth medal at the World Championships (having won a bronze each in 2013 and 2014 and a silver each in 2017 and 2018), she is already one of the best women's singles players in the history of the showpiece event. Sindhu is now tied for the position of highest medal winner in women's singles, ranked alongside two-time Olympic gold medal winner (2004 and 2008) Zhang Ning of China, who had an identical tally of medals between 2001 and 2007 in the World Championships.
What sets Sindhu apart from other players-beyond her tremendous craft and athleticism, which are imperatives in modern badminton-is her magnificent mindset. Only two other Indians have shown a similar capacity for excellence, rising to the very top in their individual sports-one being the suzerain of the 64 squares, Viswanathan Anand, and the other being sharpshooter Abhinav Bindra. Others who have become individual world champions have not been able to display such levels of determination and dedication-or sustain it like her for almost two decades-with planning and preparation coupled with hard work. Qualities like these are essential to both achieve the apex position in world rankings and to stay a while in that rarefied atmosphere.
Sindhu broke onto the international scene in 2013, at the world championship that year. What went into getting there and what followed thereafter was the struggle to maintain the rigorous routine that separates world-class champions from the also-rans. As the younger daughter of two national-level volleyball players-P.V. Ramana and Vijaya-Sindhu began her quest for sporting excellence early. Along the way, the amazing exploits of the former all-England champion Pullela Gopichand-under whose tutelage Sindhu has evolved and grown-no doubt inspired her, as also perhaps the achievements of Saina Nehwal.
Gopichand spotted Sindhu's promise early. As he said in 2010, when asked who among the trainees at his then-fledgling academy were likely to become future champions, "a lithe and lanky person is sure to go places in badminton". At that time, he singled Sindhu out for her commitment and focus. "Spend some time talking to her to discover it for yourself," he said to me, "but do not shoot questions [at her] in the manner journalists usually do." Then, he called her over and left me to continue the conversation with her.
"My life goal is an Olympic gold," said Sindhu to me that day, then only a 15-year-old. She also added: "Winning at the highest level depends, apart from skill, on the ability to turn out the best performance, to outwit an opponent on a particular day." Since then, Sindhu has evolved in confidence and consistency, becoming a powerful player under Gopichand's watchful eye. As India's chief national coach, he deserves enormous credit for the country's rise as a force in world badminton. Now, Sindhu has barely a year to live up to her own words by sticking to strategy, honing her net skills and developing new tactics to cement her place. "At the top, you have to be smart. It has to be a combination-your technique, your hitting and your mentality. There are so many skills she has to work on," says South Korea's Kim Ji Hyun, Sindhu's additional exclusive coach since March this year. But given her grit and determination, Sindhu may well become-if Japan's Akane Yamaguchi, 22 years old and world No. 1, does not dominate the sport-the sensation that Indians have been waiting for. With luck, she will keep turning silver into gold.