Imagine being cut off from reality. Not for a day, a week, a month — but three months. Welcome to P. V. Sindhu’s world in 2016.
In the bubble of Rio de Janeiro — at her maiden Summer Olympics — she was phoneless.
The decision to relinquish a millenial’s must have device on the advice of her coach — Pullela Gopichand — was a statement of intent.
Her weapon of choice in pursuit of history — a badminton racket.
It was a world away from the frenzied scenes gripping a population of over one billion back home.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” she smiles.
“People were like ‘You don’t know what it’s like in India. You might not have even expected it! Everywhere it’s jampacked […] Everybody seeing the TV.”
The fresh faced sensation had just “achieved where no one has achieved” — a watershed Olympic silver medal. The very first Indian woman to attain such a feat.
It was the culmination of years of selfless sacrifice, relentless routine and dogged determinism rooted in the heartlands of Hyderabad.
A darling of the nation was born overnight. A life beyond all recognition would now await.
Consultant, Comforter, Confidant
Her success is very much a family affair.
Her father Ramana — who won the bronze medal in volleyball at the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul — acts as her ‘consultant’; her mother, Vijaya, her ‘comforter’; her sister, Divyaram, her ‘confidant.’
“It’s like a chain where everything’s together […] They are your rock. They are your pillars.”
Inspired by the aforementioned Gopichand’s success at the prestigious All England Open Badminton Championships in 2001 — she took her first foray into the sport at the age of eight.
The commitment to the cause from each contributor was crystal-clear from the outset.
Sindhu and Ramana would travel 56 kilometers from their home to Gopichand’s academy and back every morning and evening as well as analyzing and watching matches together. Meanwhile Vijaya — who had chosen voluntary retirement — provided the dietary support back home, while Divyaram was the morale booster.
“If they (sacrifices) wouldn’t have been done, I would have not been here today.”
When the softly spoken shuttler speaks a recurring phrase springs to mind: ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.’
For Sindhu, success has involved plenty of trying.
For six months in 2015 she played through the pain of a stress fracture in her navicular bone — desperately clinging on to her dream of a maiden Olympics. It was her most debilitating injury to date.
“I was so upset. I thought maybe I can’t do it.”
But the word ‘setback’ isn’t in her sporting lexicon.
She would come back to compete in 22 tournaments, restore her ranking — which had plummeted in the six-month period — and qualify for Rio 2016.
‘I just get goosebumps’
Against all the odds and on the global stage, the then 21-year-old slayed top seeds left, right and center before eventually falling in an epic final to Spain’s Carolina Marin.
The series of small but not insignificant sacrifices when cobbled together with relentless repetition and resilience over the years had yielded a landmark result.
“When I was on the podium, I was sad for a minute. But then I thought I’ve got what I’ve not expected in my life and I have to be happy about it.”
It was then that she finally got on her hands on her phone.
And what awaited her in India was a reception which crisscrossed generational and gender divides as thousands lined the streets from Hyderabad International Airport to the Gopichand Badminton Academy.
“I can’t explain it! […] I just get goosebumps. Like even now it’s been four years!” pointing to the hairs standing upright along her arm.
Messages flooded in on social media from politicians, actresses, actors.
“It took me days and days to reply,” she laughs.
“That is when I realized the importance of that medal, the importance of the Olympics, the importance of giving back that medal to the country.”
Fame and fortune
With success came a transformative level of exposure, endorsements and expectation.
Overnight companies lined up in their droves to become associated with the most marketable female athlete in India.
Electronics manufacturer Panasonic, auto manufacturer Bridgestone Tyres, telecommunications giant Nokia, sports drink Gatorade to name but a few.
“My life has changed after the Olympics […] People are like ‘P. V. Sindhu is rich!'” she laughs.
She has become a household name in a country where cricket players have traditionally been the most popular sports stars.
Whilst competing at the 2018 Asian Games, she was named seventh in Forbes’ list of highest-earning female athletes with earnings totaling $8.5 million — $500,000 from on-court winnings; $8 million from sponsorships.
In real terms her endorsements equated to around $178,000 per day — second only to India’s world-famous male cricket captain, Virat Kohli.
“When I was really young, I always wanted to give those autographs and pictures — so I think I am there right now.”
The billboards, posters and front cover magazines — Elle, Grazia, Verve — that did and still do adorn her face are proof that in her words — “I’m doing really well.”
Modest and philosophical to the core, she sees her elevated status not as a burden but as a blessing.
“Sport is a very small life span — you come, you win, and you go. It’s not going to be forever where you keep winning all the time. When you’re there in the limelight, I think you have to enjoy it.”
Changing perceptions and opinions
Along with fellow badminton star Saina Nehwal, boxer Mary Kom and sprinter Dutee Chand, Sindhu is part of a female-led generation blazing a new trail for sport and society in India, a country where perceptions of what women can achieve outside of pre-existing stereotypes are turning.
“Before even I started (playing badminton) it was more like ‘Girls shouldn’t come out and play sport — you need to stay at home.’ But in a few years back it has changed […] It’s no more that the girl should stay at home.”
“No one should think that men are strong and women has nothing. Nobody should think that […] Women are strong enough to do whatever they want.”
Her authenticity resonates with her five million fans on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook combined.
And it offers a gateway to openly discuss ‘taboo’ topics such as menstruation.
“People tend to be shy […] They don’t come out and speak for themselves thinking it’s a very big thing or issue. That they shouldn’t speak. That’s it’s wrong. I would say it’s not wrong. It’s natural. It’s going to be there for every woman.”
“Being a sports person, I would say that it’s tough,” reflecting on her own experiences.
“At times, there will be situations where when you play a match, you would not be feeling well, you would be feeling sore. You would be having cramps. I wanted to come out with it because I want people to know out there that it’s a normal process and you should be ok with it.”
‘I want to achieve even more’
Despite her star-studded status, public scrutiny is never too far away.
A string of runners-up finishes in 2018 led critics to dub her ‘Silver Sindhu.’
“People started asking me ‘What’s happening? You come to the finals — It’s finals phobia. So these all kept going in my mind.”
Her solution — meditation, inspired by her grandmother.
“When I was low, when I kept losing matches it helped me where it made me think that it’s okay to lose. You have another way. You have a next time.
“I thought I would just answer them with my racket.”
Having lost two consecutive World Championship finals in 2017 and 2018, the very next year captured the gold which had eluded her — the first ever Indian to do so.
Whilst her Olympic silver medal exploits are soon to hit the silver screen in the form of biopic directed by prominent actor and producer Sonu Sood, Sindu’s desire to maintain the gold standard burns brightly.
Her motivator? The fictional superhero ‘Wonder Woman.”
“(Winning the silver medal) was just another step […] I’m happy with what I’ve done but I want to achieve even more.
“I want to see myself at World No.1. I want to get an Olympic gold — It’s not going be easy, but I would say it’s not tough too.
“I have that capacity. I have that passion. I have that grit. So why can’t I do it? I’m sure that if I pushed that one level then definitely I’m going to be there someday.”