Around this time five years ago, PV Sindhu was a footnote among all the headlines before the Rio Olympics. "Back then it was, 'Okay, Sindhu is just going to the Olympics'", she says. "Now, everyone expects a medal from me."
Sindhu was a shock revelation in Rio -- coached into screaming to undo her "timid" image, filling our TV screens with her fight and grace in a final of tangled emotions, her silver medal allowing India to double its underwhelming medal count two days before the Games ended. Today, she's without a doubt the most recognised face in the Indian contingent.
Now, at 26, in the prime of her career, Sindhu stands on the brink of Indian sporting immortality that a second Olympic medal will bring her. She's following a punishing fitness regime for it -- after a disappointing series of results during the Asia leg of tournaments in February, she did a 10k run under the mid-morning Hyderabad sun, clocking 25 laps of a modest-sized cricket field in 55 minutes. But her anticipation isn't betrayed by the stock anodyne quotes: "hard work", "coming back stronger", "giving 100 per cent".
Part of the anticipation - at least among the fans - stems from something in which Sindhu has played no part. Reigning Olympic gold medallist Carolina Marin, Sindhu's stumbling block in the Rio final and on several other occasions, will be missing the Games through injury. The last time they faced each other, at the Basel final in March, Sindhu was beaten in 35 minutes. Marin suffered an ACL injury in May this year, underwent surgery and has since been offering cheery rehabilitation updates on social media. Sindhu recorded a minute-long video message, vowing that she'll miss her rival, interspersed with grabs from their intense 2016 Olympic final. "When I first heard of the injury, I texted Carolina. Recently, we chatted again on her birthday (June 15) and she asked me about my preparations and wished me luck for Tokyo. I understand the pain she's going through. Even with her not around, it's not going to be easy in Tokyo."
That's true -- there's still a clutch of players who could rain on Sindhu's parade. Most of all Tai Tzu Ying. Of the current top eight players, she enjoys the most unflattering stat against Tai, having lost 13 of their 18 matches.
The Chinese Taipei player is a bit of a curious case study: a 148-week record as World No. 1 but no medal at the Olympics or the World Championships. Her mastery of the art of deception, all wrists, flicks and magic, is only rivalled by her troubling inconsistency as a big title contender. "With Tai Tzu, I always have to be on my feet", says Sindhu. "The sort of deception she plays (with) is really, really good. A couple of her strokes are brilliant."
Others include the springy, stubborn 2019 All England champion, Chen Yufei, left-hander He Bingjiao, the creative Ratchanok Intanon, Korea's teenaged phenom An Se-young and the twin Japanese energiser bunnies of Nozomi Okuhara and Akane Yamaguchi, turning out in their home Games. Okuhara, her country's first women's singles Olympic medallist, has played Sindhu in some delightfully cerebral matches, with both players slugging it out from the baseline in unending rallies. Yamaguchi - pugnacious in attack and a tireless runner - carved a three-set classic against Sindhu in the Birmingham quarterfinals this year.
Much like her game has improved since Rio - superior parrying of body attacks, quicker hand-speed, judicious use of her jump smash for maximum impact - Sindhu has also taken a fresh path in her training. She parted ways with longtime coach Pullela Gopichand and has been training under South Korean Park Tae Sang since 2019. Park first met Sindhu at the 2012 Asian Junior Championships in Gimcheon, Korea, where she won against Okuhara in the final. He recalls having been more than half-certain back then that she'd transition into a senior player of reckoning. Since taking over as her coach, he's been going over her game threadbare, looking for gaps to fill.
"The top eight seeds, I would say, are strong gold medal contenders," Park told ESPN. "Tai Tzu, for instance, is a really great player with strong motion skills and she's beaten Sindhu in all three previous meetings. For Sindhu, defence has been the only problem. The reason I think she lost the Swiss Open final and All England semifinal was because she was nervous to defend. She hadn't recovered well after that long match against Yamaguchi in the quarters and I could see her movements were not fast enough in the semifinal. After we returned from Birmingham, we started working on her on-court endurance training and also began focusing a lot on her defensive training and motion skills. Especially in the backcourt. The results are showing little by little."
In the scenario of a complete wipe-out of the international tournament calendar post March, there have been no cues to pick up from competitors or signs from one's body to trail, just an oversized mass of training, itching for a release. "Over the past year, all players have perhaps added to their skills and technique," says Sindhu. "We haven't played tournaments in at least four months now, so no one knows what everyone else is up to. We weren't even sure if the Olympics would happen at all. You hear of 72 percent Japanese not wanting the Games and don't know what to expect. But it was important to not slacken thinking about it because at the end of the day, if they said yes it is going to happen, it would just mean that we'd wasted a lot of time."
She's been doing very little of that anyway, travelling up to 70 km daily between her home, the GMC Balayogi stadium in Gachibowli where she trains with Park, and strength and conditioning sessions at Suchitra academy, in Hyderabad. Tokyo's Musashino Forest Plaza, where the badminton matches will be played, is roughly twice the size of the stadium in Gachibowli. Young male trainees at the Suchitra academy double up as sparring partners in the AC hall, sometimes squaring off against her in weekly matches.
Srikanth Verma, her physical trainer of four years, has seen Sindhu morph into the imposing player she is today. Mobility was among her foremost issues he picked up on in 2017, designing ankle stability and hip mobility modules over six months. While Sindhu's height, all of 5ft 11in, allows for an impossible wingspan, it's also hemmed in by the natural trouble of getting under steep and low shuttles landing on the forecourt. It's a ploy the Japanese have often employed against her. A lower centre of gravity is rewarded with greater speed, balance and stability on court, one that taller players have to train towards gaining. Sindhu has through a buffet of repetitive drills -- single leg deadlifts, Bulgarian split squats, barbell forward reaches and cable reaches -- learnt to chip away at a natural disadvantage, in recent years. It was testament in her plucking shuttles almost grazing the ground against Yamaguchi at the All England Open this year.
A trouble area for her, however, has sometimes been readjusting mentally and switching between game plans in match situations where she isn't dominating. For a professional athlete, the mind and body are inexorably intertwined. "A good player should be able to control their mind," says Park. "I try to talk to Sindhu a lot, calm her down and we look at solutions through conversations. Through recent training she's improved a lot in the ability to control herself."
Sindhu too has been looking inward, nudging her mind through dialogue. "When you're trailing, you can sometimes go blind," she says. "At other times, even when you're up in a game, you tend to drop a bunch of points. When that happens, you're likely to lose focus. But that's when you have to tell yourself, 'Okay, the previous point is done, it cannot be replayed. I have to get the next one'."
Over the past five years, she's had more than her fair share of big-match, crunch moments. Tokyo, former India international Arvind Bhat believes, will reveal how far they've carried her. "Even though she achieved what she did in Rio, mentally she was still a work in progress then. Generally, Indian players in badminton are known to mature late. In Sindhu's case, her hard work and talent has done wonders. In Tokyo, we'll get to see how far she's gotten with her mind. I'd say she's in with a bright chance for a gold."
In Rio, the spotlight was on returning Olympic bronze medallist Saina Nehwal. It allowed Sindhu to perform largely under the radar. Saina would crash out of the tournament after losing her second group match against a little-known Ukrainian. She'd be later wheeled in for an arthroscopic surgery on her right knee back in India roughly around the same time that Sindhu was limbering up toward a historic silver. This time, Saina, now 31, hasn't managed to crack the qualification.
The night Sindhu won her Olympic silver in Rio, she celebrated by polishing off a few helpings of chocolates and then prattled away with former World No. 1 Chinese player, Wang Yihan, until dawn. The second seed, who would announce her retirement after that Games, had lost to her Indian friend in the quarterfinals. Sindhu has since turned world champion, and at 26, is making long-limbed strides towards a second Olympic medal. Her habit of discovering an extra gear and pouring sheer bloody-mindedness into the mammoth-sized moments through the past five years, positions her with an almighty opportunity.
"Sindhu is already an Olympic hero in India, and I'm aware of the immense expectations people have from her. It makes my job even more stressful but I'm here because I love the challenge," Park pauses to collect his words. "I know no Indian badminton player has won an Olympic gold before... I will make sure she is at the highest point of the podium in Tokyo."
No pressure then, Sindhu.