Early exits, upset defeats but also two titles - PV Sindhu's year is patchy but not a concern

SIndhu lost to China's He Bing Jiao 14-21, 18-21 in the first round of Indonesia Open Morgan Harlow/Getty Images

There is a certain uncertainty when it comes to assessing PV Sindhu's performances in the first half of 2022. Is it a rough patch or simply a rough draw? Should her season so far just be seen in terms of results on the bigger stages? She has won two titles in 2022 - the Syed Modi International and the Swiss Open, both Super 300 level. She also has a bronze to show at the Asia Championships. But the former world champion has exactly not set the big stage on fire, yet.

At this week's Indonesia Open, which is a Super 1000 event, the seventh seed lost to China's He Bing Jiao 14-21, 18-21 in the first round. On paper, this looks like a shock - an early exit. But, He Bing Jiao is the world No 9 who held a 9-8 record against Sindhu and has often troubled her even in the recent wins.

A look at the opponents Sindhu has lost to in the recent past says a lot about the field in current women's badminton. Ratchanok Intanon, a former world No 1 and world champion, at last week's Indonesia Masters. Reigning Olympic champion Chen Yufei, this one coming right after beating Akane Yamaguchi at the Thailand Open Super 500. Reigning world champion Akane Yamaguchi at the Asia Championships. Fast-rising world No 3 An Seyoung at Korea Open.

Of course, there have been a fair share of upsets as well. The second-round loss to a lower-ranked left hander Sayaka Takahashi at All England. To Supanida Katethong at the India Open. To Zhang Yi Man of China, at the German Open which was a Super 300 and therefore had a less tough field.

What exactly is going wrong with her?

Former player Aparna Popat believes the answer lies not in the past but in looking ahead.

"Maybe there could be fitness concerns, maybe sometime as an athlete you want to technically work on a few things. These things happen," she says. "She is a top 10 athlete herself, having her lose to other top 10 athletes is okay but it is not expected nor something that should happen too often. She could be one of the top 10 who are beating others and that's what we want right?

"I think with her reputation and experience she can be a bit more consistent. I wouldn't know why exactly this is happening but I would say set a target for yourself, say you want to be Top 5 and then don't slip below," she added.

Consistency seems to be the big issue for Sindhu. Many of her matches have gone to the deciding game, but it was either a lack of sustained physical effort or the closing kill that ended it. Last week, her match against Intanon felt lopsided even though it was not the biggest event in Indonesia and she needed three games in her first two matches as well. It feels like it has been a long time that Sindhu has beaten the big names.

"Individual losses will come," says Popat, "even in the Top 10 I can be uncomfortable playing some three players, but not all of them. There will always be those opponents you are uncomfortable against. Saina [Nehwal] used to lose to Tai Tzu [Ying], for [Roger] Federer it was [Rafael] Nadal, this is fine. But that winning percentage somewhere needs to be maintained. Because she is so talented, being so erratic is not helping."

The situation also tells of the expectations laid on Sindhu as one of India's most successful badminton players. The pressure or even the need to constantly perform on the gruelling BWF tour for points can be a tough task and at times requires strategic planning.

Popat believes this could be another reason. "Come next year, the Olympic qualification begins again where you have to maintain your ranking so logically and strategically this is sort of a lesser year, with even the Asian Games cancelled. It could be okay if she just maintains in the top 10 and then builds up against when the Olympic cycle begins. Last time her big advantage was that she qualified very early and then had flexibility."

What next?

At a time when the men's badminton graph has suddenly ascended via Lakshya Sen and then the historic Thomas Cup triumph, Sindhu's results can look stark in contrast.

However, this is a part of every athletes' life. Even former world champions. Even the only Indian woman to have won two Olympic medals. She is only 26 and still a top 10 player, so there is no need to hit any panic button or sharpen the knives. It could just be a matter of time.

There are still big-ticket events to go this year - the Commonwealth Games in July and the world championship in August. Sindhu is still the best Indian women's singles player; indeed the only to consistently make the BWF Tour events in Saina Nehwal's continued injury layoff. She is a bankable performer at the big events and her big-game mentality can never be counted out.

"Sindhu is just so talented, with her physique and now experience added to that I think she can be quite formidable," says Popat.

This is the hope all Indian badminton fans have of her and it will be multiplied in the second half of 2022. Whether Sindhu can weather it or will it weigh her down is an interesting storyline to watch for the rest of the season.