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It had become a ritual for us to talk after P.V. Sindhu played a final in recent times. And each time, one would say the very same words to her: that she should look at the positives, making the final was in itself an achievement, it was a real close match and things will indeed be different the next time round. Even I knew the words sounded hollow. Sindhu, despite making multiple finals, was in pain. She was suffering and deep down there was a growing sense of frustration at not being able to break the jinx. Not anymore. When I called her after the year-end BWF finale in China, there was elation in her voice: “Thank you for the call and this time it is no longer silver. It is gold!”.

The strong emotions were palpable and the sense of relief in her voice was understandable. “It was something I wanted to change deep down. Making the finals and not winning is not something any athlete would want to go through multiple times and in my case — it had happened on far too many occasions. Now that it is past me, I want to win many more titles in 2019,” said Sindhu.

The mind goes back to a conversation one had with Gopichand a month before in his academy in Hyderabad. Sindhu was involved in an intense practice session and we were watching from the sidelines. She was retrieving just about every shuttle hit at her and looking at her intensity, one could not help but ask Gopi what his role was as coach now that Sindhu had reached a level few have ever done in India?

His answer offered me a fresh insight on how the badminton guru’s mind works. “My job is to make her win from tight situations. I don’t need to teach her to play badminton, she knows it all. But when she is tied 17-17 in the deciding set in a close match, it is my job while sitting in her corner to make her win. To see what she isn’t able to see as a player and tell her the finer points,” Gopi concluded.

That’s what it is all about. The Gopi-Sindhu pairing, which is now 15 years old and counting, winning many a medal for India. And they know the big prize for us in India is coming up a year and a half from now. “I am not thinking of Tokyo yet. 2019 is a very big year for me. Now that I have ended the year well and have beaten all the top players, I want to build on this momentum and win more titles in 2019,” says Sindhu, before going on to add: “It is important to keep playing well and stay fit. There is the All England, the World Championships and the Super Series competitions. Every win is special and that’s what you strive for as a player.”

Sindhu is right. She has now reached a stage where she can rightfully start thinking of dominating her sport. With Tai Tzu Ying at the top, she knows the competition is tough. Tai is a once-in-a generation player and to beat her isn’t easy, but as Gopi says: “Tai is beatable. Everyone is.

“It is important we plan how we play her,” he adds. However, from the evidence of the year-end championships, Sindhu has finally figured out a way of beating Tai. “I have to tell you I never put pressure on myself. Even when I had lost a few finals I knew I could turn it around and just need to keep working hard. That’s all it is about. Keeping focus and keep working hard,” Sindhu says.

A visit to their Hyderabad academy and you realise that’s what she does — day in and out, every morning almost all days of the year. She knows 2019 is now well set up for her. She knows peoples’ expectations have now grown and there will be pressure on her. But what is high-performance sport without pressure and Sindhu, to the many who know her well, is ready.

“I know people expect medals and trophies from me. In India, we don’t have too many champions and it is important that we win and win consistently. It will be good for the sport and for the future generations,” she says.

Mature beyond her years, Sindhu at the end of 2018, seems to be on a mission. The plan seems to be to make sure the number of silver medals in her cabinet is now replaced with golds and by the end of 2019 she is ready to make a real pitch for the big prize — the gold medal at Tokyo 2020. Knowing Gopi and his vision for her, it is safe to assume he will make sure Sindhu is ready in every possible way.

No Indian woman has been at the top of an Olympic podium and it is time to change that. Sindhu has already changed many things. This will be her final frontier.

- The author is a sports historian & journalist based in Kolkata

Did you know?

Sindhu’s parents were professional volleyball players, but she opted for badminton as her career path.

To choose badminton, Pullela Gopichand was her role model then. In her initial days, she played under the guidance of Mehboob Ali and she joined Gopichand Badminton academy later on.

Her favourite actors are Hrithik Roshan, Mahesh Babu and Prabhas.

Sindhu won the Arjuna Award when she was just 18 and she was awarded with Padma Shri at the age of 19.

She was also honoured with Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award in 2016.

Sindhu is a foodie. She loves Italian and Chinese cuisines and Hyderabadi Biryani as well.

Sindhu is the youngest Indian woman to clinch an Olympic silver medal in Rio Olympics 16.

—Staff Report