Path to Paris: Forget form, forget everything... it's time for big-game PV Sindhu

No Indian woman has won more than two Olympic medals. Can PV Sindhu become the first? David Ramos/Getty Images

When was the first time you heard of PV Sindhu?

Maybe it was in 2013, when an 18-year-old Sindhu beat two Chinese players back-to-back to end India's 30-year long wait for a singles medal at the World Championships. Or maybe it was in 2016, when a 21-year-old Sindhu stunned the field to become first Indian woman to win an Olympic silver medal.

Both these results had come out of nowhere and little expectation, at a time Indian badminton had another top player in Saina Nehwal. But they are symbolic of what PV Sindhu would become for India - a big-match, big-medal player, especially when least expected.

Now turning 29, Sindhu has two Olympic medals to her name already, a first for an Indian woman, and is going for an unprecedented hat-trick at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

This time though she is neither a promising youngster like at Rio 2016 nor the reigning world champion like at Tokyo 2021. This time, Sindhu heads into the Games as a grizzled veteran coming through the toughest phase of her storied career.

Exactly two years before Paris 2024, Sindhu had coasted to Commonwealth Games gold. Or so it had seemed. Later, it was revealed that Sindhu had played from the quarters on with a stress fracture in her ankle. The pain was dismissed for gold, but it would end up costing her quite a bit.

A five-month injury layoff and she returned a shadow of the player she once was. Her striking game took a hit and her confidence slumped as the losses piled on. It took a further year, and another injury layoff in late 2023 (accompanied by a complete overhaul of her core support team) for her to rediscover her groove. It's nowhere near her ceiling, but she now has a stable foundation to re-build.

Will that be enough to see Sindhu's Path to Paris end on the podium again?


"She looks physically very good to me. This morning when I was talking to her, I could see the glow on her face," says Vimal Kumar, Chief Coach at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Bangalore where Sindhu moved to train this year.

It sounds like a strange comment, especially when you consider Sindhu's recent track record: In her final three tournaments before the Paris Games, she had a mixed run of final, second round and first round exit. All three losses ended similarly - a tough, deciding third game where she could not hold on to her advantage after being made to fight.

Indeed, all her losses this year bar one (against undisputed world No 1 An Se Young) have come in the decider. Several of them advantageous positions, often from a lack of finishing when things get tight.

Now, that doesn't sound too good when seen in isolation. But there are clear signs that just beneath these losses, the Sindhu spark is back.

Physically, she is back to playing a more attacking game, imposing the physique and pace that made her such a threat. Mentally, she is back to enjoying her badminton again, an important building block of her confidence. Both these aspects were noticeably missing during Sindhu's year in the wilderness.

She went back to the start, putting in the work. She changed her strength and conditioning set-up and began training with Wayne Lombard, the South African specialist (who had helped the Tokyo semi-reaching women's hockey team and now wrestler Vinesh Phogat). Long sessions with Padukone and new full-time coach Agus Dwi Santoso helped with developing a sharper attack.

And she started looking like her pre-injury, pre-pandemic self, even if the results don't show that yet.

For Sindhu, re-finding and refining her attacking gameplay will be crucial to her Olympic quest - especially in the fast courts and minimal drift of the Porte de la Chapelle Arena in Paris. She has played her best badminton when going all-out in creating openings, using her impressive height and wingspan, and a plucky body smash here and there, to command the court. (The best example of this is when she became the world champion in 2019, where she virtually blasted opponents of court with her attacking play.)

Much of that revival is down to her stint with Padukone, for whom she moved from Hyderabad to Bengaluru. After changing four different coaches in about a year and struggling to settle in a style or rhythm, her game this year has reflected the new-found stability. Padukone even travelled with Sindhu to the French Open and All England Championship this year, a rare move from the veteran.

"Prakash has been trying to help her play a little more dominant, more at the net, using her height," says Vimal. "She can play a lot better and create openings because she has a good finishing stroke, and she has a good fit. That's her strength, so she should play to her strength."

This has also led to the return of a classic Sindhu stroke - the jump smash, which is amplified by her impressive 5'11" frame.

"At the Rio Olympics, the way Sindhu played was completely different. With the jump smash, the opponents [and us] were very surprised because she hadn't played it like that before. I feel that really worked in her favour," says Aparna Popat, former India player.

"In fact, the two performances where Sindhu very obviously did something different, was Rio [Olympic silver] and the second was her World Championship gold in Basel."

This is also why her struggles on BWF Tour must be viewed in context. She has played just nine tournaments so far in 2024, managing her calendar and training blocks all with the aim to peak for Paris. And she is still adding to her game, finetuning her skills to maximise her weapons.

Like her racquet preparation, which looks sharper now. "Earlier it felt a little bit slower and longer but now the racquet head is coming early and quick," says Shlok Ramchandran, former Indian player - now a coach in the USA. "That is the number one thing which I've seen change in the past six months. I saw her play at the US Open last year, and it wasn't the same."

This is a fascinating observation because it shows that Sindhu, at 28 years of age with over a decade of being in gruelling elite sport, is still upscaling with intent.

"It has been an okay year in terms of performance, but we can forget about those because she not setting goals to win these tournaments," adds Aparna. "She'd love to win but that's not something that we should really be concerned about. We should really look at the quality of the matches that she's played."

Sindhu is labelled a big-tournament player for a reason beyond those record five World Championship and two Olympic medals. She has an intrinsic ability to elevate her game when needed, irrespective of form guide on tour. In fact, the two consecutive Olympic medals have come in years when she was not at her best; week-in, week-out on tour.

In other words, her BWF tour performance is not the best marker to gauge her Olympic chances.

The results, particularly against top players, have not gone Sindhu's way; she pushed Rio champion Carolina Marin to the brink, gave a proper scare to Tokyo champion Chen Yu Fei at the Olympic venue, and could not make headway in the one-sided rivalry against An Se Young. The other way of looking at this equation, though, is that Sindhu has had competitive exposure against the top players.

"What I've observed is that she's a little vulnerable against a newer opponent, ones she has not faced before," says Vimal. But against familiar opponents, some of whom she has played over a dozen times in her career, Sindhu will always have the edge of experience.

"I saw the entry list and one of the reasons I think Sindhu can make it is because most of them are from the earlier batches, who have played the last two Olympics," says former player Trupti Murgunde. "Apart from maybe two or three, she has been with this group for years."

The other factor is that all the women's singles stalwarts, like Sindhu, are coming to Paris with considerable battle scars.

"Quite a few of these players are also carrying big injuries. Tai Tzu Ying [knee], Yamaguchi [hip], Carolina [two ACL surgeries], even An Se Young [knee] because she played so many tournament," adds Vimal.

The BWF Tour can be punishing with weekly tournaments and a bunch of mandatory competitions for top players. With shuttles slowing down, the games have become longer and that has taken a toll on all bodies.

With most top women's singles players veering towards a counter-punching style of play, Sindhu has a solid window of opportunity given the strength, variety and reach she can bring in her strokes.

The draw, to be made on July 12, therefore assumes great significance in deciding Sindhu's fate. Likely seeded 10th, she will need some luck to fall her way even before the Games begin. If she can avoid bogeys like An before the semifinals, she has a fighting chance in this field.


The tangible pieces of Sindhu's game blueprint are all falling back into place after the outlier 2023 season.

She is back to her peak physically, with a long training block set in Germany till the Olympics. Her footwork is improving after the leg injuries, her endurance coming through in the increasingly inevitable three-game battles. Her coach and mentor are giving her the freedom to play with intent and she is using the license to hit, going for the lines and air whenever she can.

It is the intangibles of sport now that will be Sindhu's big opponents before the Games begin. Tactics and mentality. Confidence and body language. Handling pressure. Closing out the 19-19 situations. Recovering from bad points. Making the right judgement calls.

Sindhu has done all this many times before as an elite athlete for almost a decade now. But these are also things that Sindhu has forgotten the muscle memory of somewhere between the physical and mental travails of 2023.

In all her big matches this year, the differences between a win and a loss have been as minor as a few bad line calls or inadvertent errors under pressure. Her opponents have noticed this and exploited it.

The final enemy to beat then, is her own mind. To stay in the moment and employ the right gameplan.

"The main aspect for her [now] is on the tactical front [where] she is supported," says Vimal.

"She can play a lot better and create openings because she has a good finishing stroke, and she has good fitness. This is an area she can still get better at; she is doing the work."

Thus, the tactical awareness and initiative of the on-court coach will be vital in in her path in Paris. Padukone will be there, visiting at the Olympics, but there is a good chance that he may not be able to sit on the sidelines with her. Agus, then, will have to be more involved, pulling her out of her own head as much as out of defensive rallies.

At the Asian Games, Sindhu alluded to the mental health struggles of Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka after her quarterfinal loss. Both those global superstars are back to being very good at their sport, and they have their smiles back.

Sindhu too has some of that spring back in her step. "I remember talking to her during the US Open and it didn't feel like mentally she was very confident or having fun on court," says Shlok. "But the way I'm seeing her play, she's looking aggressive, playing with that intent."

The task at hand for Sindhu and Team PVS (as they are called) is to prepare to peak for Paris - tying together her prime fitness levels with tactical support and mental stability.

"It's like a car machinery, every part of the car has to be well oiled at the right time and it's only then you can fire," as Aparna puts it.


At Rio 2016, she was a promising youngster who stunned the Chinese world No. 2 and provided the silver lining to a disastrous Olympic campaign.

At Tokyo 2021, she was the reigning world champion under immense pressure who fought back from a tough loss to go on and win a second Olympic medal.

At Paris 2024, she will somehow be a combination of both her previous Olympic avatars - a promising prospect with the pressure of matching up to her own previous, mighty standards.

It won't be easy. No women's singles player in badminton has won more than two Olympic medals. No Indian woman has won more than two Olympic medals. If there is one player who can do it, though, it is serial history-maker Sindhu.